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Gently Down the Stream, Park Theatre review - gay history sifted for compact drama | reviews, news & interviews

Gently Down the Stream, Park Theatre review - gay history sifted for compact drama

Gently Down the Stream, Park Theatre review - gay history sifted for compact drama

Martin Sherman has the excellent Jonathan Hyde telling true tales

Ben Allen as Rufus and Jonathan Hyde as Beau in Martin Sherman's beautifully crafted history playAll images by Marc Brennan

Ripeness is sometimes all.

80-year-old Martin Sherman's recent play, receiving its UK premiere at canny Park Theatre, says more about gay history in 100 selective minutes than The Inheritance managed in six and a half hours. True, it's not aiming at the visionary: Sherman knows that's best left to Larry Kramer, recalled as prophet and patriarch in AIDS-ravaged New York, and to Tony Kushner's Angels in America. But with three fine actors deftly directed by Sean Mathias, Gently Down the Stream – taking its name from the "Row, row, row" roundel the main character's wise old saviour remembers being sung by World War Two soldiers from different rooms in the New York YMCA – still conjures worlds.

Sherman is, of course, like Kramer, part of that history he wants to perpetuate. As he points out in a programme interview, "if, for instance, you are a young African American man, it isn't possible to forget the past... If you are Jewish, there are countless books and films as well as oral histories recounting the Holocaust. But gay history has, until recently, been somewhat lost in a fog. It's important to keep telling stories." Here the stories are eagerly sought by Rufus (Ben Allen), a febrile 28-year-old city worker, from the new lover with whom he starts to make a life, 62-year-old Beau (Jonathan Hyde), a cocktail bar pianist from New Orleans with all the "scar tissue" of his generation. The past emerges partly in dialogue, partly in Beau's three reluctant monologues recorded by Rufus (Hyde pictured below). Jonathan Hyde as Beau in Gently Down the StreamIt's a simple but effective structure. The life of Beau and Rufus, complicated eventually by the arrival of performance artist Harry (Harry Lawtey), the young(er) lover Beau has advised Rufus to take, itself becomes part of the gay chronicle: a civil partnership proposed but not accepted; a wedding which allows the last of Beau's big monologues to unfold as what turns out to be a best man's speech; domesticity with a child for which Rufus seems unprepared. Meanwhile Beau's reminiscences zigzag through time, the confidences he's received in turn taking us back as far as the 1920s. Heard of Mabel Mercer? Me, neither. She's the Midlands-born, mixed-race chanteuse whom Sherman gives Beau as accompanist for her later years. What we hear of her recordings is stunning. "She mythologised our misery," says Beau when Rufus suggests a glamour to the secrecy of gay life in the older man's younger days. Rufus has a bipolar condition – so Alaskan-sounding, says Beau, who eventually forces on him a need to medicate his manic depression; back then, alcoholism was the name of the game.

Hyde's delivery of the monologues is mesmerising and deeply moving (to tears, surely, when Beau talks poetically of Judith Peabody, the socialite who cared for so many dying young men in 1980s New York). I can't vouch for the authenticity of the New Orleans accent tinged with Brooklyn, but the careful balance of irony, caustic wit and deep emotion is always finely held. An act of violence against a gay gathering in a bar is the final chapter, albeit not chronologically, in Beau's narrative. Meanwhile we see his in-the-moment pain of dealing with a younger lover he ought to trust but can't, entirely, his outward acceptance of a change in circumstances and inner grief. Harry Lawtey in Gently Down the StreamThere's a genuinely magical moment when Harry swaps pulling mobile phones out of his arse – as we're told about his performance art – in favour of cabaret singing and a superb interpretation by Lawtey of "The Man I Love" (pictured above), tellingly taking from storytelling Beau the upper stage against the bare back wall so well lit by Jamie Platt (Lee Newby's ground-level recreation of Beau's living room is convincingly real). Allen makes us like and trust Rufus from the start, so that we go with his slightly scary manic moments and a short scene which is enough to delineate the plunge into a deep depression, handled by Beau with patient sensitivity.

Above all these are people we can really care about without resort to cosy sentimentality, which has not been a given in many recent gay plays. Sherman's – which is in any case a love story that should resonate with everyone – ought to be a winner. The buzz of a first-night audience including many figures who are also part of Sherman's history wasn't just a luvvie-fest; this is a deeply felt gem which deserves a West End transfer. 

The careful balance of irony, caustic wit and deep emotion in Beau's monologues is always finely held


Editor Rating: 
Average: 5 (1 vote)

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