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The Boys in the Band – Review * 04 October 2016

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This is a spoiler free review.

The Boys in the Band is both a play of its time and astonishingly relevant to the world today. It's a snapshot of LGBT life as it was in New York City a mere year before the Stonewall riots, as well as a message for anyone watching right now who may feel themselves the outsider. Mart Crowley's script is laced with biting comedy as well as genuine anger, with the play merrily veering across shifts in tone in the blink of the eye. Make no mistake, this isn't a light night out at the theatre, but it's extremely likely you'll be highly entertained. 

The biggest revelation you can draw from this new production is that the whole thing essentially belongs to Ian Hallard. As Michael, he is the first on stage and literally the last to exit it. The birthday party that is the framework of the play is his idea, thrown for Mark Gatiss' Harold, and the assembled group of friends - as well as one unexpected guest and a barely sentient 'present' -have congregated in celebration. Though as things go on, it's perhaps tough to call them friends really, and frenemies is also too strong. Whichever way you want to lean in interpreting the relationships of these characters, the sheer amount of catty bitching between various individuals coupled with the warmth of the complex social relationships at play is causing a heady broth to begin to brew - and that's not even including the mysterious motives of Michael's old college roommate, over who hangs a huge question mark. Everyone in the cast is excellent, though particular note should be given to John Hopkins as Alan, the mysterious college friend and unexpected party guest -displaying an astounding pitch perfect accent that made us do a double take on seeing that he is in fact English - and James Holmes as the utterly outrageous and flouncy Emory, who will generate much of the laughter you'll probably find yourself emitting.  

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By the time Mark Gatiss wafts through the flat door as Harold at the close of the first half, we've already witnessed a maelstrom of huge laughs and uncomfortable moments.  His cool, reptilian presence is the final element required to really turn up the heat on this particular pressure cooker, but what it leads to isn't an obvious explosion. Instead, the characters sadly collapse into themselves and their own private desires and heartaches while egged on by Michael, drink fuelling them to speak unspoken truths about their lives. Michael however becomes angrier and angrier, spouting the strongest of racist, anti-Semitic and homophobic language - a result of the hatred he carries for himself.

What begins to emerge as a result of all this is a group of men willingly labelling themselves so others do not. To quote a line from the brilliant film 'Pride', starring Andrew Scott: "When somebody calls you a name… You take it. And you own it." These characters are brazenly owning the stereotypes that could be pinned upon them, all while clustered away in this NYC flat that can be seen as a physical metaphor for the repression the hidden gay community find themselves existing in in the 1960s. Indeed, many of the most intriguing elements of the play and performances hinge on the things that go unspoken - the nature of Michael's birthday gift to Harold remains unexplained, though there lurks a suggestion of past history between them. Repression is the main element at play here, whether it is in the truth behind two men living as 'room mates' or the anger that can be bottled up inside. The whole thing can be pulled apart and interpreted so many ways, but we feel it best to leave it to the viewer to do that. Unrevealed aspects of the play may leave you infuriated, or intrigued, but the very fact that they remain so closely guarded is perhaps the most important thing about this fierce, angry little snapshot of an evening in the life of these nine men. It is a completely entrancing experience, by turns hugely funny and shatteringly sad, with those moments often underlined by the droll bitchiness of Mark Gatiss' Harold and particularly the ferocious self loathing of Ian Hallard's Michael.  

The Boys in the Band is performing at The Park Theatre, London until October 30 2016, before touring in Salford, Brighton and Leeds. Click through for ticket information and availability.

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