It’s a refreshing angle to chart the change in gay social progression over the last seven decades. From the 1950s, where homosexuality was a criminal offence, to the present day, where gay marriage has been legalised, Outlaws To In-Laws highlights the many highs and lows of the last 70 years in the queer agenda. But it doesn’t hang together as a single piece – Mary Franklin directs seven separate vignettes that tackle certain issues important at the time with mixed success. As a concept, Outlaws To In-Laws is strong; as a set of narratives however, it is left wanting.
The most successful of the offerings are the two that tackle the issues of the day from a fresh perspective – Jonathan Kemp’s Reward and Topher Cambell’s Brothas. Reward is a clever examination of racism and homosexuality in tandem, a battle between 1970s nationalism and queer pride. Spike (Jack Bence) and Donald (Michael Duke) are at opposite ends of the social spectrum and yet are drawn to each other by a barrier-breaking mutual attraction. Kemp doesn’t pander to stereotype, or belittle us with background narrative. Instead the script has nuance and detail, an unnecessary ending marring what is otherwise an endearing performance from both leads. It throws a political slant on Lady and The Tramp without championing any sociological division above the other – blank and white; middle class and working class; accepting of homosexuality and closeted for survival. Everything is in balance in this highlight of the Outlaws To In-Laws showcase, including Bence’s stand-out performance as conflicted skinhead Spike.
By contrast, yet equally successfully, Campbell’s Brothas places focus firmly on being a black gay man in the noughties. Here we tackle the world of internet dating and hook-ups from the perspective of body image and the perception of what it is to be a ‘normal’ gay man. Dwayne (Duke) and Remi (Myles Devonté) embark on an earlier version on Tinder, a website where you accept or block based on one person’s profile picture. Campbell ingeniously works in the beginnings of gender politics that is now raging between the masc, fem and stocky groups – Dwayne (Duke) is outwardly disgusted and aggressive towards any man not in his clique yet has the gall to approach him online. This is an insight into how internet dating worked before the smartphone and it’s eye-opening to witness. Duke steals the scene again, instilling arrogance and schoolboy bullying into the batty boy image, but then still pandering to the first white man that messages him because he’s thinking of the money. Both Kemp and Campbell are in tune with working political messaging into everyday situations of the time – the shows in many ways are detailed photographs of a highly complex and layered two decades.
But Franklin falls down in the other works, which don’t have the complexity or layering of those above. A stunted 1950s piece, Philip Meeks’ Happy and Glorious feels awkward and slapdash, the actors themselves not comfortable in their roles or their lines. Everything feels too restrained and a caricature of reality – prim and proper overrides personality in the performances of Arthur (Paul Carroll) and Dennis (Devonté). Jonathan Harvey’s Mister Tuesday and Joshua Val Martin’s The Last Gay Play are also too muted – snippets of passionate acting by Bence in both cases, but otherwise a diluted depiction that don’t give sufficient voice to the tales of the decade. Patrick Wilde’s 1984 and Matt Harris’ Princess Die are stronger, with Alex Marlow shining through both of these shorts. From a bereaved boyfriend to a struggling drag queen, Marlow gets under the skin of his characters and has gravitas in his stage presence.
Outlaws To In-Laws is only the tip of the iceberg, but it shows how much can change in such a seemingly short space of time. A pleasant set of pieces for the 50th anniversary year, the overall production feels too disjointed, a set of events that happened independently of each other and not as part of a larger, complicated puzzle.
Director: Mary Franklin
Writer: Topher Campbell; Matt Harris; Jonathan Harvey; Jonathan Kemp; Joshua Val Martin; Philip Meeks; Patrick Wilde
Design: PJ McEvoy; Tim Lutkin (lighting); Josh Robins (sound)
Cast: Elliott Balchin; Jack Bence; Paul Carroll; Myles Devonté; Michael Duke; Alex Marlow
Image courtesy of Paul Dyke
Outlaws To In-Laws plays the King’s Head Theatre until 23 September 2017. For more information or to book tickets, please visit the website.