GT reviews E.V. Crowe's new play at the Royal Court
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Watching E.V. Crowe's Hero at the Royal Court, I'm reminded of The Simpsons episode featuring a gay rights march: "We're here. We're queer. Get used to it!" the gays chant. "You do this every year!" yells Lisa in response, “We are used to it!". In the same vein, Hero's themes of gay-bashing and how the word "gay" has/doesn't have negative connotations, feels like a play mis-timed.
Danny (played by the boyband-after-they-were-famous-handsome Liam Garrigan) left homophobic Sheffield for the liberation of London. He’s now husband to the older, previously heterosexually-married Joe (a nicely understated Tim Steed). Danny is a primary school teacher and works alongside Jamie (a frenzied Danny Mays) - also coincidentally, one of Joe’s oldest friends, and a straight man. Jamie has been mightily disconcerted to overhear two six-year olds call him "gay". After administering a clumsy "Being gay is not a bad thing speech" he's concerned that by not actually "inning" himself as a straight man, the kids think he's a poof. The situation then speedily escalates into a gay-bashing recrimination, and discussions about education, fatherhood and masculinity.
Although this has the makings of an interesting investigation, ultimately the confusion of themes and the thinness of the characters leads us nowhere. Sadly Danny (and to a lesser extent Joe) are gay men for whom everything they discuss is linked to sexuality: gay guys doing a gay adoption while making gay bread in their gay kitchen. In a play where being "normal" is debated so hotly, it would have been nice to see more "normal" (read: "not-harping-on-about-being-bloody-gays") dialogue; more character development beyond being a one-of-them. Honestly, I don't think I've heard the G-word spoken more times in two hours. Instead we just get hints of a life beyond what they do with their willies, requiring the audience to work hard and jump lots of gaps. As can be expected at the Court, the acting is strong. It's a shame the script is not.
The play nudges up against the worrying trend for minorities, including the gay community, to be seen as aggressors, powerful minority lobbies - such as in the recent Christian B&B saga. Danny's muscular, wide-eyed, Blue-Peter-meets-Stonewall “minority aggression” is a fantastic portrayal of a fundamentalist gay man. Perhaps too good, as I for one started to feel more religious hotelier than proud gay man. If this was the intention, then other half of the argument is never fully explored. Joe's character goes some way to remedying this, but his "older, wiser and previously married to a woman" angle makes him too obvious a mouthpiece for caution and being gay with a lowercase-G. It's also not much help that the action plays out on set so minimal that no one can look comfy in their own home, leaving the actors nothing to do but stomp around a kitchen table.
The play briefly roars into life in Act Two, when Danny Mays' Jamie gets a chance to shine on his own turf, telling the story from his perspective. Mays is left with nothing in the script other than to play Joe as spectacularly autistic (which he does spectacularly well), but it’s a point which adds little, apart from some needed flashes of humour. But once again, we’re given little to understand why he’s so concerned for his masculinity. Despite being friends with gay Joe for years, he's suddenly got issues. Is it the IVF treatment he and wife Lisa are having? Is it that Danny is a better teacher? Prettier than him? Again, we as viewers have to make the leaps, and they're not easy or clear. He's almost a layer of complexity that we could do without. Like another play that's sneaked in.
Hero is an interesting debate, but not necessarily a captivating play. More university LGBT society meeting than the kind of powerful drama that could come from this topic. We all know that being gay is ok. Forcing people to accept your viewpoint is a more contentious issue. If only E.V. Crowe had stuck with one thing - adoption, hate-crime, gay fundamentalism - I’d be less inclined to side with Joe’s desperate mantra "Be normal".
Hero is at the Royal Court Theatre until December 22.
Words: Luke Smith
Photo: Johan Persson