Reviewed – 10th March 2020
“the production captures the sense of hysteria which defined the lives and loves of a generation of gay men”
The trauma of living through the AIDS crisis has been covered well in the theatre from the hard-hitting musicality of “Rent” and “Falsettos” to the powerful no-nonsense “The Normal Heart” and “Angels in America.”
Harvey Fierstein’s restless comedy-drama “Torch Song Trilogy” played its own important part in the charge in 1981, while his lesser-known “Safe Sex” trilogy (three separate plays rather than one play in three acts like its predecessor) appeared on Broadway in 1987, only receiving a partial UK premiere in 2014.
As part of the VAULT Festival, Network Theatre concentrates on one-third of that trilogy in its staging of “Safe Sex,” a 40-minute piece that stands alone rather well mixing dramatic intensity with Fierstein’s lighter touches.
It features two young men who were once in a relationship, went their separate ways, then got together again but this isn’t a tragedy about one catching AIDS and both living with the consequences. Rather this is about how a fear of the disease affects those living in its shadow and how sexual relationships are altered by the spectre of the deadly virus constantly hovering in the background.
The night of romance turns into a reminiscence about the carefree days of sexual encounters prior to the disease becoming widespread and how AIDS affected so radically the lives of those touched by it without having it. In those days, as the characters point out, “the worst you could get from loving somebody was a broken heart.”
For one, Ghee (a vulnerable Sam Neal, laying down the rules to prevent the transmission of AIDS, but revealing his own sense of inadequacy and needy nervousness), the desire for playing things safe and taking necessary precautions becomes more of an excuse to avoid intimacy, as years of repressed anger and hidden memories are unleashed. Neal manages to tackle Fierstein’s big speeches without ever once making them sound like the preaching of a lecture or a rant.
The other person in the relationship is Mead (George White blending tough love with a simmering sensuality), who has to spend most of the play being criticised about his perceived lack of cleanliness (“I’ve seen dogs fall in love with grass where you’ve walked barefoot” jests his partner).
In the trading of insults there is much to laugh at as well as a great deal to think about and the production captures the sense of hysteria which defined the lives and loves of a generation of gay men.
The original production used a giant see-saw as a set and in an odd decision director Jacob Trenerry, who otherwise succeeds in making the drama feel absolutely contemporary and relevant to today, sets the action on what is supposed to be a see-saw but is in fact a large white plank resting on two black boxes, with a flimsy piece of card (which fell off) representing the fulcrum. It’s disappointing as it means the emotional ups and downs aren’t reflected by the non-operating teeter-totter at all and things remain too static.
That said, the venue and encompassing festival are a perfect setting for a revival of this important play and the production allows the anger and fear about an epidemic to resonate in an era where anything goes.
Reviewed by David Guest