“the play struggles to engage, too often feeling more like a public service announcement than a piece of theatre”
Remember when JK Rowling shook the world in 2007 by announcing that Dumbledore was gay? It was arguably an entirely tokenistic move, with the author failing to meaningfully mention the character’s sexuality in the seven book series she’d just completed. Nonetheless, it still displayed a small shuffle forward in representation, introducing a LGBTQ+ character into a major franchise and sparking the kinds of discussions that Dumbledore is So Gay delves into.
The play follows Jack (Alex Britt), a Harry Potter fanatic growing up gay in a culture that uses the word as an insult. He has to suffer through societally entrenched homophobia from his friends, classmates, and parents (all played by the multiroling Max Percy and Charlotte Dowding), as many young people have had to do. However, the difference is that Jack is armed with a time turner, the time-travelling necklace that Hermione uses in The Prisoner of Azkaban. In this play, Jack uses it to try to alter the timeline so that his fantasies are manifested, but has to reckon with some harsh realities.
The script, written by Robert Holtom, doesn’t feel like it ever really embraces the concept, however – the differences between the timelines feel quite unadventurous and tame. A lot of the dialogue is also very on the nose, as if Holtom doesn’t trust that the audience for this show is most likely going to be comprised of people who already subscribe to the idea that homophobia is bad. As a result, the play struggles to engage, too often feeling more like a public service announcement than a piece of theatre.
The performances, too, are a mixed bag. Britt inhabits the role of Jack excellently, but has the same intonation on a lot of his lines that makes the dialogue feel wearisome. Percy over-caricaturises most of his characters, which works initially but ultimately exacerbates the script issues. And Dowding thankfully strikes a great balance of comedy and pathos across her characters that’s fantastically engaging. Overall, it feels like a tonal misstep from director Tom Wright.
There are positives to the show: the lighting design (Rory Beaton) and sound design (Peter Wilson) are both stellar, and Darius Shu’s filming for the stream is highly professional and beautifully executed. However, these elements are building on flawed foundations – Dumbledore is So Gay feels like it entered the conversation about ten years too late for the messages it wants to share.
“a slick, subversive, and soulful experience, that brings a perfect blend of comedy and poignancy to the end of the world”
The end of the world has understandably been pretty prevalent subject matter in a lot of film, TV, and theatre lately, and given how much we seem to be experiencing the actual end of days in the real world, seeing it happen on stages and screens can feel laborious. Thankfully, Catching Comets cuts through to deliver an apocalypse story that’s fun, intimate, and earnest.
Catching Comets follows Toby (Alastair Michael), an astronomer who discovers a comet that’s on a collision course with Earth. When the authorities don’t take him seriously, he takes matters into his own hands by morphing into the kind of B-movie action hero that he’s come to idolise from the films he’s watched. It’s intercut with a parallel plotline in which Toby’s blossoming romance with a dancer named Forest Green forces him to confront his own insecurities, and the two threads begin to converge as the end of the world and the end of the relationship coalesce into the same earth-shattering catastrophe.
Piers Black’s script is stellar once the apocalypse plot is in full swing. Hearing Toby narrate his actions as the B-movie hero as if they’re written in a screenplay – “a close up shot of my face” – keeps this half of the play’s tongue firmly in its cheek, and maintains a rollercoaster momentum. It also juxtaposes beautifully with the more poetic description in the other half of the play, where Toby frequently describes minute details about his feelings for Forest Green that give it a deep realness that lets the audience empathise with Toby – so much so that one audience member couldn’t help but audibly ‘aww’ at many of these moments.
Alastair Michael helped this further through an excellent connection to the audience, and an absolute masterclass performance. The duality between the nervous, introverted Toby who’s terrified of being hurt by Forest Green, and the stoic, confident Toby who’s transformed into a knock-off Rambo is fantastic to watch, particularly as these are often snap changes between the two sides. His physicality in the action scenes is also hugely impressive, where – thanks to Chi-San Howard’s movement direction – the relatively cosy Pleasance Theatre is made to feel like a sprawling movie set.
The direction, also by Black, makes full use of every member of the creative team. Natalie Johnson’s set, comprised more of less of a square of washing lines with two balls hanging of them is hugely effective and is used to create a sense of impending doom as the ball representing the comet is moved along the lines closer to the ball representing Earth. Matt Leventhall’s lighting cleverly transports the audience between the different plot threads and creates a powerful cinematic quality where needed. And Mark Harris’ sound design sets the tone perfectly, especially in one climactic moment that brings every element together.
Everyone involved in Catching Comets has brought their absolute A-game and it makes for a slick, subversive, and soulful experience, that brings a perfect blend of comedy and poignancy to the end of the world.