“Adam Spreadbury-Maher’s production is atmospheric, moving and hugely enjoyable”
Screamingly funny and surprisingly moving, Coming Clean is an eighties anthem to love, friendship and the pain of infidelity. The play premiered in 1982, at the end of the more carefree pre-AIDS era when gay men didn’t have to think about that kind of danger. It’s a domestic drama, centred on the life of Tony and Greg, a couple who have what appears to be a stable non-monogamous relationship. Their neighbour and friend William is a party animal and disco queen, cruising and fucking his way round London’s gay scene. He is played with a glorious camp panache by Elliot Hadley, who also manages to convey the warmth and vulnerability beneath William’s outrageous surface. Hadley also makes a hilarious appearance, at the end of the play, as Jurgen, a leather clad German who Tony has brought home for sex. Tony and Greg, played by Lee Knight and Stanton Plummer-Cambridge, are a believable couple who live in Greg’s Kentish Town flat. Their fifth anniversary is coming up and all seems to be well until Tony hires a cleaner. When the cleaner arrives he turns out to be Robert, an attractive out of work actor. And we are on our way to a love triangle.
Lee Knight is superb as Tony, deeply in love with Greg but frustrated by his role as the one who does the housework and his problems with his writing. He is butterfly-like in his subtle mood shifts, becoming a little different depending who he is with, enjoying William’s camp bravado and Greg’s stable strength. Stanton Plummer-Cambridge’s Greg is focussed and taciturn; he can’t tell a joke and is irritated when things don’t go his way. But the two men are OK together, despite some sexual issues, until Robert arrives in their lives. Jonah Rzeskiewicz gives Robert a young, almost puppy like, enthusiasm and a pinch of endearing nervousness. He seems too sweet to be the cause of the pain to come.
The action all takes place in the flat, a perfect reincarnation of an eighties pad, created by designer Amanda Mascarenhas. From the rug on the floor to the Thriller poster on the wall it’s an evocation of a world when a pint of beer cost 90p and Kentish Town was an affordable place to live. The eighties music, and the classical records on the record player keep us firmly in the right time and place. Adam Spreadbury-Maher’s production is atmospheric, moving and hugely enjoyable. It is also nostalgically sad, because from our twenty-first century viewpoint we can see the looming shadow of the coming AIDS epidemic and the terrible suffering it brought to the gay community.
Kevin Elyot’s writing is sharp and witty and, although he uses some standard tropes, a partner returning home early, only to find his lover ‘at it’ with someone else, there is also a depth and understanding of the pain of infidelity that, with credit to Knight’s portrayal, is almost visceral. There is surprisingly little reference to the difficulties of being gay in 1982, Tony and Greg’s relationship being seemingly undisturbed by the outside world. It is only William’s attack that introduces a harsher societal context to the work.
“there is a period charm, enhanced by Amanda Mascarenhas’ design, the attention to detail of which is faultless”
“Coming Clean”, Kevin Elyot’s first play premiered at the Bush Theatre nearly four decades ago. That it took until last summer to be revived, by Adam Spreadbury-Maher, at the King’s Head Theatre is quite astonishing. Now at Trafalgar Studios, it can bask in the long-awaited attention it deserves. Predating, by a decade, his breakthrough play “My Night with Reg” (which covers much of the same ground) it consequently suffers from being branded as his ‘first promising play’. Originally titled “Cosy” – a pun on Mozart’s opera which plays an important part – Elyot reluctantly compromised on the title but, thankfully, none of the material.
The play is set in a North London flat in 1982. Struggling writer Tony (Lee Knight) and his partner of five years, Greg (Stanton Plummer-Cambridge), seem to have the perfect relationship. Committed and in love, they are both open to one-night stands as long as they don’t impinge on the relationship. Into their lives walks Robert (Tom Lambert), a ‘resting’ actor doing a bit of cleaning on the side. It is no spoiler to reveal that cleaning is not the only service Robert does on the side, but the repercussions are what form the backbone of the drama.
Central to the drama is whether fidelity is both emotional or physical, or whether the two can be compartmentalised; and whether total honesty paradoxically damages a relationship or whether ignorance is bliss (a dichotomy that uncannily foreshadows the misleading misnomer of the “Don’t die of ignorance!” campaign during the onset of AIDS). But it is a mistake to delve too deep. “Coming Clean’ is foremost a bittersweet comedy – and in my mind more sweet than bitter where the laughs outweigh the woe. The central characters’ neighbour, the donut-devouring William (Elliot Hadley), almost single-handedly holds the show together with bursts of colour and comedy. Hadley’s is an outrageously powerhouse performance with the lion’s share of the best lines. He chides but cherishes Tony, a complex character movingly portrayed by Knight. There is an interesting dynamic between him and Plummer-Cambridge’s growling Greg, with shifts of balance that are eventually toppled by the dashing Robert. Lambert manages to tacitly show us that there is a more calculating undertow to the rippling clumsiness of his ingenue façade.
To call it a ‘gay’ play is, like most labels, an ineffectual tag; the questions addressed apply to anybody and everybody. Take away the sometimes graphic references to their sexual practices and these characters can become as generic as the audience; which is all-encompassing. That is part of the beauty of Elyot’s humour that overflows with sharp and brutally honest one-liners that we can all relate to. For that reason, the dialogue, too, crosses over into the present day with ease, never feeling dated. Instead, there is a period charm, enhanced by Amanda Mascarenhas’ design, the attention to detail of which is faultless.
Nostalgia can often be confused with obsolescence. But Spreadbury-Maher’s production shows that a refusal to buck to the trend of updating in no way lessens the impact of the material. Yes, it is rooted in the eighties and in the gay, male culture; yet it resonates beyond boundaries and becomes universal. Which is what defines great theatre.