Marc Brenner

Directed by Sean Mathias, Martin Sherman’s new play has opened at the cosy Park Theatre, following a critically-acclaimed run at the Public Theater in New York.

Making its UK debut some 40 years after Martin Sherman’s acclaimed modern classic Bent, and marking the playwright’s 80th birthday year, Gently Down the Stream tells a charming if unconventional love story. It concerns Beau (Jonathan Hyde), an older American pianist living in London, and Rufus (Ben Allen), an eccentric young lawyer.

The opening scene is set in the early 2000s; Beau has used a new website called Gaydar to find his hook-up, while Rufus has been using another modern invention, Google, to find out more about the history of the man he’s just met. Beau has lived an interesting former life as the accompanist of singer Mabel Mercer, an influential vocalist with a repertoire full of songs written by male composers for other men. Hers were songs full of coded messages about forbidden love, articulated for those who knew what to listen out for.

It’s a play which is ambitious in scale – the subsequent scenes chart Beau’s and Rufus’ relationship as it evolves, and the arrival of a third man, Harry (Harry Lawtey), over a period of more than a decade. Interspersed throughout are a series of monologues delivered by Beau, which offer insights into the experiences that have made him the man he is. These stories are told beautifully; Beau’s storytelling is wonderfully poetic and poignant, as he recounts memories of a generation of gay men who fought and suffered for the rights we enjoy today.

While there are serious messages at its heart, Gently Down the Stream also has a charming sense of humour – there are countless witty moments throughout and some of the observational comedy is spot on. It’s also genuinely very touching in places – there are really warm, intimate, affectionate moments, which offer a contrast to some of the more difficult memories from Beau’s past.

If we’re being fussy, we did have a couple of very minor issues. While we enjoyed the monologues, on occasion they paused the action for rather longer than we’d like; most were about the right length, but a couple could have been trimmed. In addition, the play is full of interesting historical references, like the aforementioned Mabel Mercer tale, or the account of the UpStairs Lounge arson attack. However a couple, like the brief mentions of Larry Kramer and Judy Peabody, whose stories are not then explored in any detail, felt a little tacked on.

Neither of these issues detract from what is otherwise a thoroughly enjoyable show. As a play told largely from the perspective of an older gay man, who lived through the AIDS crisis and whose generation fought and suffered for the rights we now enjoy, we felt this could be a perfect companion piece to The Inheritance; but perhaps that’s doing it a disservice, as Gently Down the Stream is also a great standalone play. It’s tender, witty, poignant, and kept us engaged throughout – a powerful and poetic piece of theatre. Highly recommended.

Gay Times gives Gently Down the Stream – ★★★★

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