Canary @ Hampstead Theatre, London

cast list
Ben Allen, Sean Gallagher, Phillip McGinley, Jodie McNee, Ryan Sampson, Kevin Traynor, Phillip Voss, Paula Wilcox

directed by
Hettie MacDonald
“Vagina” intones Maggie Thatcher in that unmistakable masculine drawl, and if thoughts of the lady’s u-bend aren’t enough to make your stomach turn, her cut glass articulation of the words “rectal sex” – with that characteristic firmness that lies somewhere between personal ethic and weighty policy point – do much to blur the line between the gut-wrenchingly-funny and plain gut-wrenching.

Such is the nature of Canary, Jonathan Harveys first play for nine years, in which horror and camp tread side-by-side in a deftly-tuned waltz through fifty years of British social history.
The play takes its title from Peter Tatchells assertion that “women and gay people are the litmus test of whether a society is democratic and respecting of human rights. We are the canaries in the mine”. And accordingly the play seeks to cover three generations of gay British masculinity, tracing relationships between men from the wide-eyed and closeted 1960s where the state violently asserted hegemonic masculinity, through Bent-esque police raids, and Pinterseque scene of aversion therapy. To the dark and troubled 1980s where Thatchers combination of Victorian pulpits and damning individualism set a tone of abandonment amidst the tragedy of AIDS. Right up to the present day where certain generational discontinuities threaten to have all this history disappear.

Quickly following his success as a young playwright, Harvey turned his hand to television writing and its perhaps his work on Coronation Street that is closest to Canary. The lean plotting economizes to the very core, and decades are condensed as if they were a busy day on the street. This collapsing of time-space is achieved though minimal use of props, Liz Ashcroft’s spare and claustrophobic set, and each cast member combining and recombining in multiple roles over multiple situations and decades.

Indeed the cumulative effect can be a little dizzying. The busyness is amplified by the pace of the melodrama – from nought to sixty emotions per second – and the cycling between scenes of despair and comedy is, at times, so rapid as to almost constitute mood disorder. Yet this line between pathos and comedy is a tightrope that Harvey treads with ferocious purpose, and it is testament to his white-knuckle skill as a writer, and a hardworking cast, that the many plots weave so nattily together.

This is a play of massive ambition, however in the end perhaps the ambition falters – the play feels unable to resolve its aims to be both a defining historical statement of male gay British history and a Saturday night crowdpleaser. Ideally it would be both, but decades into post-modernism the tensions between glibness and history, frivolous and serious, remain perennial in theatre.

Indeed the same tensions that Canary dramatizes between politics on one hand and entertainment on the other in the contemporary gay subject, perhaps come unresolved in Harvey as a writer. And yet to acknowledge this is also to acknowledge that Canarys imperfections stand in the very faultlines of the process of liberation that it so vitally historicizes. Canary could not exist were it not for the very ongoing salience of these tensions, and Harvey appears at this point in our history to ably and exhaustively cover it. Ultimately then Canary comes to us as a triumph and a victim of its own ambition, but remains no less comic, weighty, timely and vital for it.

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