Coming Clean is one of those rare and wonderful theatre experiences where all the different elements have aligned just right, and the product is this gem of a show. The casting is phenomenal, the acting is consistently above par, the music sets exactly the right scene, and the attention to detail very much pays off. The most impressive thing, however, is how a play first performed and set in 1982 successfully conjures up such relatable characters and conflicts almost four decades later.
Kevin Elyot’s script focuses on the lives of four gay men living in Kentish Town in London – most specifically on the five year relationship between Tony and Greg. The play opens with Tony (Lee Knight) chatting and messing about with his best friend William (Elliot Hadley). It is refreshing to see a close friendship between two queer characters depicted with joy and heart, but absolutely no underlying sexual chemistry.
Hadley lands every joke from the moment he appears on stage – and there are a lot of them. Even without lines, his nonverbal giggling, grunting and body language are laugh-out-loud funny. His Northern clowning and lack of decorum may be a bit of a stereotype, however the play clearly delights in it and William’s character is developed as the play goes on. Knight’s performance is also stand-out. Tony is a subtler character, through whose eyes we see the action unfold; Knight plays him as empathetic and authentic, with charm and, most importantly, nuance.
The set is static throughout: a slightly grubby living room/dining room. It’s not the most demanding of sets but credit goes to designer Amanda Mascarenhas for raising the bar, creating a detailed corridor which audiences only glimpse upon the open and close of the door. The heavy smoking of (real) tobacco throughout might be too much in such a small space, but it is certainly evocative of the decade and adds to the overall atmosphere.
There are many themes under scrutiny in Coming Clean. Whilst the premise is relationships – fidelity, tenderness, and complications – the play is also about the difficulties of making art and navigating social and domestic roles in a queer setting. Tony, struggling to write his collection of short stories, will always be outshone by Greg’s (Stanton Plummer-Cambridge) successful literary and academic career; he is both acutely pained by this domestic inequality and full of gratitude for Greg’s financial support. Robert (Tom Lambert), the cleaner that the couple hire, is a young aspiring actor – as William puts it, “No wonder he’s a cleaner.” And yet, soon he too gets his big break. The portrayal of artists and the great divide between the aspiring and the accomplished underscores the play and the relationships between characters; it is thought-provoking and will be relatable for many.
In fact, the show as a whole is intensely relatable, regardless of gender or sexual orientation, as its themes are universal. LGBT theatre is often put in its own distinct category: this production is an exemplar for why that approach is nonsense – everyone should go and see this play. Yet in saying this, I don’t want to diminish the inherent queerness of Coming Clean. It is unapologetically, nonchalantly gay. The references to cruising and queerbashing are important to establish its place in history, and there are also several graphic sexual references in the script. However, it’s the casual tenderness between Greg and Tony, the mundanity of their domestic disagreements, and the lack of any straight characters to act as ‘comparison’ that powerfully normalise their same-sex household. It is hard to believe that this was first performed just six years before the introduction of Section 28.
Despite the record player, clunky landline phone and absence of laptops, this production is fresh and modern as can be (although it is, to be clear, a dreadful advertisement for how to manage open relationships). My only real gripe with Coming Clean is that it concludes so suddenly, leaving no time to make sense of Robert’s rapid character transformation. That aside, this is a five-star production that you don’t want to miss.
Coming Clean is on at Trafalgar Studios 2, until 2 February 2019. More information here.
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