When I last left the Trafalgar Studios after Jamie Lloyd’s production of Harold Pinter’s The Hothouse, I was still chuckling from the play’s sheer physical force of farce (I merrily ignored the final, macabre scenes, seeing only Simon Russell Beale and a large piece of Christmas cake). But after watching The Pride, Lloyd’s latest in his Trafalgar Transformed series, my tears weren’t of laughter, in fact I barely made it out the door – such was its power, it had welded me to my seat.
I went into The Pride knowing nothing more than it followed the changes in attitude towards homosexuality through the interweaving of two different eras, one set in 1958 and another in contemporary London. My ignorance payed off; not knowing anything about it meant it packed an even bigger punch and made some of the surprises particularly funny (Mathew Horne in a Nazi uniform was not something I ever expected to see, let alone find it hilarious – you have to trust me on this one).
I was right about one thing, the story is about a couple – Oliver and Philip – whose lives are mirrored (literary thanks to a clever and rather beautiful set design) across five decades. The play opens in 1958 in the home of Philip (Harry Hadden-Paton) and his wife Sylvia (Hayley Atwell) who has invited her boss, writer Oliver (Al Weaver) out to dinner with them. Suspecting her husband is shielding a side of him from her and the world, Sylvia has contrived the whole meeting and claims not to be surprised when the two men embark on a, then illegal, affair that has far reaching and heartbreaking consequences for all three of them.
Fast forward 55 years and a contemporary version of Philip and Oliver are in the middle of a messy break-up thanks to Ollie’s addiction to anonymous sex (this is where the Nazi uniform comes it). Their lives are in so many ways easier than their mirrored images, but society still hasn’t freed them from the chains of lazy stereotyping and off-the-cuff ignorance that can be just as damaging.
Writer Alexi Kaye Campbell’s taunt script swings violently from trivial and funny to ferocious and heart-wrenching. He allows us to acknowledge and appreciate how much has changed for homosexuals in this country in the past half a century, but we’re not allowed to rest on our smug 21st Century laurels, a point highlighted in the curtain call when the cast bring out placards bearing the slogan “To Russia, With Love”. Atwell’s modern Sylvia delivers a pitch perfect speech as her and Ollie settle down to watch Gay Pride in the play’s final scene about the darker, less obvious undertones that build stereotypes – “tell you who you should be”- that are knocked down by those that make them.
The Pride is as powerful a piece of theatre as I’ve seen for a long time. Theatre, for all its intimacy, can feel cold and sterile, its hyper-artificiality diluting the intensity and emotions. But The Pride has a real humanness to it, it’s all too believable. It’s cry-with-laughter movements segue into gut-wrenchingly sad scenes. It’s terrifying, tender, brutal, brave and honest. But while it’s an important play, it doesn’t take itself too seriously and the brilliant acting helps contain any amateur dramatic trip wires that the script may contain.
The actors were all on blistering form. Al Weaver as Oliver was particularly moving, inhabiting his meek ancient Greek loving 1950s Oliver with a sweetness and hope, while he tempered the flippancy of his modern Ollie’s campness with a sadness and a genuine desire to grow out of his lost boy past. Hadden-Paton was perhaps more at home in 1958, but his sensible 21st century incarnation was a nice foil to Ollie’s hysteria. And we all know Hayley Atwell can act the tea dress off a period piece as if she were born wearing Chanel Rouge, but she played her sweary modern day Sylvia with a deft lightness of touch that made her the perfect (potty) mouthpiece for a generation.
For more information and tickets visit www.thepridewestend.com.
by Suzanne Elliott