Long on courage, short on dramaCharles Spencer of the Telegraph reviews Certain Young Men at the Almeida, N1. Friday 29 January 1999
YOU won't hear many publicly admit it, but I suspect most heterosexual males have sometimes secretly pondered what it might be like to be gay.
The ready availability of casual sex, the freedom from responsibility, the heady pursuit of hedonistic pleasure — all can seem tantalizingly attractive as you glumly commute from suburbia to pay the school fees and the mortgage.
Peter Gill's underpowered but intermittently fascinating account of modern homosexual manners makes the gay state seem a good deal less alluring. In this play it's all bickering, self-absorption and maudlin heartbreak, and you get the impression that quite a few of the characters secretly crave the security of marriage and a family, while others resent the fact that their relationships are a pale imitation of those of heterosexual couples.
"What are two grown men doing living together, faking all the stupidities of a fake straight relationship?" one character asks plaintively. In the next scene we discover that his taciturn Daily Mail-reading partner has violently attacked him, just like any other wife-beater.
There is no mistaking the play's disillusioned insight. What's disappointing is the lack of compelling drama. Gill portrays eight men, ranging from a successful obstetrician to a young cockney scallywag, and explores the progress of their relationships in a series of scenes that achieve the tricky double of being both frustratingly brief and tiresomely wordy.
The dramatist has also missed a trick. He might have come up with a latter-day gay version of Schnitzler's La Ronde, exploring a daisy chain of homosexual relationships. It would have lent the play both structure and poignancy. Here the characters merely drift along, to no great purpose or point, with the actors looking on from the back of the stage when they are not actively involved in a scene. Sometimes a character from one relationship will drift briefly into another, but there is little sense of narrative urgency or emotional involvement.
Fatally, Gill's writing lacks the revealing detail and the texture that might bring the characters to life. The performances are undoubtedly accomplished, but most of the gay men seem more like types than individuals and a couple remain ciphers to the end. I could also have lived without the tricksy alternative versions of how a conversation might have developed.
What I do admire is the play's courage. Many campaigning homosexuals will be outraged by Gill's analysis of the fault lines in both homosexual relationships and gay culture in general. Indeed in the play's best scene, one of the characters wonders if gay culture is anything more than Calvin Klein pants, discos and "body fascism".
The dramatist is perceptive and funny too on the two extremes of the gay life - those cosy New Labour couples who have become official "partners", and the radical wing, where, in a memorable phrase that I'm doing my best to forget, "To be really queer you have to have someone nail your foreskin to a piece of wood."
Gill directs an inert production of his own play on an unforgivably scrappy design by Nathalie Gibbs that scatters the objects of the characters' lives - beer cans and books mostly — on a bare stage. It must have taken her all of 20 minutes.
Among the performers Jeremy Northam as the obstetrician, and Andrew Woodall as a fellow who has left a wife and child to become his lover, are the only actors to establish a truly persuasiuve and interesting relationship. Elsewhere Certain Young Men often is more like an illustrated lecture than a play.
Send mail to with questions or comments about this web site. Copyright © 1999-2012
Last modified: 2012-03-15