Next up in the 'Trafalgar Transformed' season at Trafalgar Studios is this revival of Alexi Kaye Campbell's play which was first produced at the Royal Court Theatre back in 2008. Since its premiere, 'The Pride' has acquired a string of awards and this new version finds its original director, Jamie Lloyd, back at the helm and in admirable form.
For previous productions in this season, some of the audience have been able to get closer to the action by sitting on the stage. But not for this show. That might be partly due to the requirements of Soutra Gilmour's set which is largely comprised of one huge mirror acting as a kind of backdrop, which also serves as a rather large symbolic device.
To understand this play, you need some historical background. Before 1967, male adults having consensual sex together in private could be sent to prison for the offence of gross indecency which had been created in 1885. What this meant was that gay men could not engage in sex together without fear of prosecution – even if they did so in the privacy of their own homes. And the law effectively provided a blackmailer's charter for the unscrupulous. It was to take until 1967 before this invidious law was repealed, and the journey to a situation of gay and lesbian equality with heterosexuals was to take far longer. And it has been a long hard road for society at large to change its attitudes towards and perceptions of gays and lesbians. That battle may still not be completely won, particularly in many other countries, as the cast reminded us during the curtain calls.
'The Pride' is a kind of 'then and now' play. Four actors play two sets of characters – one set residing in the 1950s, and one set in the present day. During the play, the action moves between the two eras, tracking developments between the two sets of characters. In the 1950's ensemble we find Harry Hadden-Paton's Philip struggling with his sexual identity. Although he is married to Hayley Atwell's Sylvia the marriage is hardly blissful. And when Sylvia brings her work colleague home to meet Philip, we find that the two men already know each other, presumably from a clandestine sexual liaison. In the present-day setting, we find Al Weaver's Oliver trying to cope with the break-up of his relationship with (another) Philip. Although they were living together as partners, Oliver was inclined to indulge in sexual activities with other men, a matter which Philip found depressing and could not endure.
Other than the large mirror, Ms Gilmour's design is sparse and intentionally so. In fact, the second half of the play has no other furniture and only a couple of props such as blanket and a bunch of balloons. In the 1950s setting there are only two chairs, which I took to be symbolic of a relationship, ie a married couple or two people living together.
There's plenty of humour in Alexi Kaye Campbell's thought-provoking and sensitive script, especially from Matthew Horne's two well-described and very funny characters – though I must admit that I have heard more hilarious comments from gay men, especially on Pride marches. Still, there is more than enough to entertain here with flawless acting from a very fine ensemble and sensitive direction from Jamie Lloyd.
Certainly, this is a play about self-knowledge, and the proposition seems to be that this is the key to achieving some kind of happiness in terms of sexual relationships. However, that kind of knowledge was of little use to gay men in the dark, dim and sad days before 1967 when the force of the law and the mood of society was so overwhelmingly repressive.
"Campbell's play is far more than propaganda: it's a work of art that juxtaposes scenes from the repressive 1950s with others from the more liberated, but still imperfect, present...Superbly acted revival."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"An elegant and thoughtful drama."
Henry Hitchings for The Evening Standard
"Shrewd, witty and deeply affecting."
Paul Taylor for The Independent
"It is structurally inventive and deeply felt...excellent revival."
Charles Spencer for The Daily Telegraph