King’s Head Theatre is now synonymous with works that explore real life, modern day situations around homosexuality and sexual identity. Even a cursory glance at Adam Spreadbury-Maher’s upcoming programme speaks volumes – Boy with Beer and Strangers in Between, not to mention F*cking Men and Boys in the Band that are currently touring around the country after their original stint at this forward-thinking establishment. Indeed there have been a number of discussions recently around the influx of ‘pink plays’ currently hitting London and the UK theatre scene. Joint lead critic for The Stage Mark Shenton welcomes the addition that in the 90s was deemed a plague, whereas Alice Saville from Exeunt magazine queries the validity in naming this a boom in LGBT theatre when all plays still seemingly revolve around the stories of gay men. Personally, I see the merits in both arguments; theatre should encourage discussion and debate in all areas, so ultimately the production of different points of view can only serve as a positive. 5 Guys Chillin serves the gay community well; no sugar coating or pussy footing around the topic, but a verbatim look at interactions between gay men today. The myriad of exploratory themes unite themselves in an almost cavalier attitude to chemsex and chill sessions that have exploded into the ‘alternative mainstream’ thanks to the rise of dating apps like Grindr.
I first saw this production a year ago almost to the day in the very same theatre, so to watch the show’s return after touring Brighton, Edinburgh and off-Broadway is in many ways a homecoming. With only one original cast member, Elliot Hadley, still present, the show has taken on a number of character twists and turns since its inception, an “in flux” work that metamorphoses and evolves as it travels, develops and grows. Peter Darney originally scripted the play after many hours of verbatim interviews with gay men that routinely partake in the scene – a group of people that, more than any other, have broken free from subjugation, the chains and associated stigma over the last 100 years in a show of rebellion and public acceptance of their culture.
King’s Head theatrical space is perfectly placed for a production such as 5 Guys Chillin. This is a play in which Darney wants the audience to both observe and participate equally in the session, characters having their own fun on the fringes of the party as well as observing the actions of the main protagonists. And what a plethora of experiences these characters have. Each plasters on a veneer of nonchalance and sexual experimentation borne of their desire to either rebel completely against convention or to hide themselves in plain sight. All are relatable in one way or another, describing prejudicial experiences that many people would assume are fictional, as if something so outrageous would never happen in today’s society no matter how accepting it is…
That is the magic of Darney’s writing – nothing is made up, everything is honest. It has potential to shock, yes, but given the typical audience demographic it comes across simply as relatable and emotionally impactful. The flamboyant gay scene may seem completely opposed to the laddish, macho, heterosexual male scene, but similar traits pervade through both – everything on show is a mask that conceals the repression within. It is all too rare for this community to have the opportunity to watch a piece of theatre that bares its soul and have a frank, honest discussion about it without the need for drink, drugs and sexual promiscuity. A surprising statement, but true – serious debate doesn’t favourably coincide with cocktails and go-go dancers.
There is a big difference between the production as it is now and that of a year ago, which fundamentally lies in the understanding each actor has of their respective character. All of the new additions to the cast seem to bring a fresh perspective on the delivery of their lines, an understanding as to the trigger points that at times passionately explode out amidst the sexual hedonism. Stuart Birmingham, Richard de Lisle and Hadley are all HIV positive, but it is Birmingham that seems to be struggling most with this fact. His exterior bravado isn’t quite as convincing, which adeptly shows a fragility to his character not seen in previous shows. Equally Cesare Scarpone as the American guest is stronger, more intense; he forms a deeper, instant bond with closeted Adi Chugh and the resultant chemistry overflows with both lust and affection.
As the original actor, Hadley has cemented his position as the glue that keeps this show together. His year at playing an over-sexed puppy dog, dying to please whichever master he now associates himself with, culminates in a magnetic performance. Hadley immediately establishes a presence that goes past his extrovert initial presentation and pleather onesie. Micro-reactions speak volumes and Hadley galvanises the chill guests with the audience by employing effortless experience in the pace, tone and nuance of the show. He is the leader of the orchestra, directing the atmosphere with a nod of his head and the pattern of his bowing.
In the post-show Q&A, Spreadbury-Maher poses the theory that chemsex has had the biggest sexual impact on the gay scene since HIV in the 1980s, a point that the audience and chair David Stuart (of 56 Dean Street) concur with. If so, 5 Guys Chillin can be considered a documentary, a vital educational piece that should be shown to all teenagers warning of the dangers that can result of overindulging. The show however isn’t designed to preach, nor should it – the act of presenting such a powerful work is enough to conjure discussion and kindle the fire of conversation between the whole community.
Producer: Em-Lou Productions
Writer/ Director: Peter Darney
Cast: Elliot Hadley; Stuart Birmingham; Richard de Lisle; Adi Chugh; Cesare Scarpone
Runs until 5 November at the King’s Head Theatre, London