Seven Dials Playhouse
Reviewed – 15th February 2022
“unquestionably funny and also heartbreakingly sad”
We need to talk about “Steve”. Or rather Steven. And Stephen. And Esteban (the Spanish form of Stephen). There’s another Steve, too, in Mark Gerrard’s tragicomedy who lurks, unseen, offstage but just as instrumental in the unravelling of the tightly knitted relationships of his namesakes and their best buddies. Even the late Stephen Sondheim is ever present throughout this production, to whom it is dedicated; his music a constant undercurrent, and wisps of his lyrics reverently scattered over the dialogue. There is something elegiac about Gerrard’s bittersweet tale. A parable, almost. Self-aware and conscious of the passage of time.
The play opens with Steven celebrating his 47th birthday in a downtown New York bar. Although not in a fully-fledged midlife crisis, Steven is struggling with the transition into middle age. A stay-at-home Dad, he is also grappling with the notion that his long-term partner is having an affair with his best friend’s partner. Meanwhile his closest confidante, Carrie, is terminally ill. Fuelled by vodka stingers he inevitably spills out his emotions, upsetting his guests and the glasses on the table. But no matter, Argentine waiter Esteban is on hand to clear up the literal and figurative mess. So, too, is the rewind button which replays the scene avoiding the outburst and offering a smoother transition into the unfolding narrative that follows.
Andrew Keates’ spirited and passionate direction perfectly mixes a human story with a heightened, almost musical delivery from the characters. Whenever it becomes a touch absurdist we are pulled back into the nitty gritty of everyday life. Infidelity, parenthood, monogamy, mortality, impending death, lost opportunities. We all know the score. We may have heard it before, but Gerrard manages to make it fresher by putting it in the context of same sex relationships. But even that concept, like the play’s protagonists, is reaching a certain age, and Gerrard is cleverly questioning whether the gay community itself might be having a midlife crisis. ‘Where do we go from here?’ he seems to be asking. While celebrating the huge progress made over the decades, there is a whole new set of questions now. Inspired by the passing of the New York marriage bill, Gerrard is reflecting on the double-edged nature of the milestone. “Oh my god, now we can get married. What are we supposed to do with that?”
This is definitely not a ‘be careful what you wish for’ scenario, however. Nor is it a caricature of the gay American Dream. The writing is too sharp for that and at times the sexuality is irrelevant. It speaks to everyone. It is fundamentally about relationships and friendships and how we look out for and after each other. It is unquestionably funny and also heartbreakingly sad. Keates makes us care deeply about the personalities laid bare before us, aided by his impressive cast.
David Ames holds the fort as Steven, hilariously abrasive and camp but deeply caring and easily wounded. Jenna Russell gives an absolutely glowing performance as Carrie, the bold and brazen lesbian confronting her terminal illness with more strength than all the men around her put together. All the performances are exceptional; strongly twisting the dialogue – wringing out the laughs and the tears in equal measure. The highs and lows are mirrored by Ben Papworth at the piano, echoing the emotions with his dynamic and varied accompaniment.
The phrase ‘Once Upon A Time’ is a leitmotif throughout the show that reminds us that this is a New York Fairy Tale – in many senses of the word. But it also reminds us that the happy endings promised are more elusive than we once thought. We have come a long way, Gerrard seems to be saying, but there’s still further to go. But, hey, forget the psychobabble – “Steve” is in essence a hugely entertaining tragicomedy. Sharper than most that cover similar ground, it cuts through societal and sexual divides and then unwittingly sews them together. It appeals to all of us – and is a ‘must see’.
Reviewed by Jonathan Evans
Photography by The Other Richard
Seven Dials Playhouse until 19th March
Previously reviewed by Jonathan this year: