EXHIBITIONISTS at the King’s Head Theatre
“For the most part, the play paddles in the shallow waters of caricature and stereotype”
The King’s Head was the UK’s oldest pub theatre when it closed its doors last August. Less than six months later – though years in the planning – the doors reopen to the new purpose-built space. The site is steeped in theatrical history, and many of us stepping through the doors on opening night for the inaugural production carry fond memories or have personal connections with the old space. The spirit of many great names in British theatre still lingers, some of them now ghosts. Watching perhaps. We can only speculate as the evidence is whitewashed over, and little remains, despite directly connecting to the old dressing room. None of the atmosphere has crossed the threshold. No memorabilia. No link to its colourful history. No echoes from the past. Nevertheless, as we descend the stairwells down to the subterranean black box, the anticipation is palpable.
“Exhibitionists” is an apt play to open the first season. In line with the LGBTQ+ leanings the venue has adopted over the years, it also harks back to a romantic golden age of twentieth century theatre. In their programme notes, writers Shaun McKenna and Andrew Van Sickle, reference Terence Rattigan and Alan Ayckbourn, while also drawing parallels with the screwball wit of Hollywood’s Charles Lederer. Bizarrely no mention is made of Noël Coward, even though the plot of “Exhibitionists” is lifted, lock, stock, and barrel from Coward’s thirties comedy of manners, ‘Private Lives’. Almost. Except it lacks the manners, or Coward’s mastery of the language. The subversiveness of Coward’s sexual identity was reflected in his plays – particularly ‘Private Lives’ – but as well as being a closet gay play, it is a classic that maintains universal appeal. “Exhibitionists” is overt, brash and blatant, but its focus is much too narrow.
Set in the San Francisco art world, Conor (Ashley D Gayle) and Robbie (Robert Rees) are living separate lives having split from their volatile, open relationship years previously. They both now have new, younger partners. Conor is with upcoming film-maker Mal (Jake Mitchell-Jones) while Robbie has hooked up with the heteroflexible Rayyan (Rolando Montecalvo). The two couples stumble upon one another at an art exhibition. The exes reunite, reignite and relocate swiftly to a nearby motel run by the implausibly eager Sebastian (Øystein Lode) with the new partners in hot pursuit. Squabbles and sex alternate as the farce unravels.
“The performers do well to counteract the faithless writing but cannot escape the cartoon landscape in which they are trapped”
The premise is predictable and, for all its profanity, not at all subversive. For the most part, the play paddles in the shallow waters of caricature and stereotype. Which is surprising, but also unsettling in that it seems to be unwittingly marginalising the culture it represents. There is little sense of celebration. The in-jokes jar, as though written by an outsider looking in, which renders the piece exclusive, eradicating its wider appeal in one foul swoop. Meanwhile, promiscuity and predatory behaviour are promoted in a way that, if presented in any other environment, would be condemned.
The performers do well to counteract the faithless writing but cannot escape the cartoon landscape in which they are trapped. Bronagh Lagan’s direction moves the action snappily, encumbered however by superfluous entrances and exits (which become as repetitive as the dialogue); and more so by the poor sightlines created by the venue’s raked seating.
“Exhibitionists” is a rather unsubtle revival of a delicately intelligent original. A poor man’s Coward. For half a century the King’s Head has paved the way for pub theatre. The previously shabby auditorium has attracted top writers, directors and actors throughout its eclectic and eccentric history. The atmosphere hasn’t crossed over to the new venue, and the opening show is not one to draw it in. The ghosts will want a new space to haunt. Let us hope the audiences don’t follow them because, with time on its side, the King’s Head will recapture its soul, and our hearts.
EXHIBITIONISTS at the King’s Head Theatre
Reviewed on 8th January 2024
by Jonathan Evans
Photography by Geraint Lewis
Previously reviewed at this venue: