A boy spins around freely on-stage, his mother’s white wedding dress billowing around him. Below him, a sloping semi-circular stage and, above him, an arching semi-circle, which could be the edge of the world. This intimate but epic image marks the start of Jonathan Harvey’s comeback play, Canary, which has real beauty, sophistication and poetry to it. It is by no means perfect: the magic realism sections don’t work very well, some characters fail to fully emerge and the complex structure isn’t entirely robust. And, yet, there are some searing scenes, some overwhelming sensual experiences that hit the characters and audience with equal force and some beautiful snatches of poetry.
Much of Kushner’s Angels in America glimmers behind Harvey’s kaleidoscopic tour of gay culture in Britain, which whizzes between the 1960s and the modern day. Both writers play freely with time and reality – flash between countries, decades, heaven and hell – in their explorations of the struggle for gay rights. But the parallels between Harvey and Kushner’s plays don’t run as keep as one might hope. Kushner’s is a mad but consistent landscape; a credible but crazy dramatic reality, where the only strange occurrence would be normality. This consistency does not apply to Harvey’s canvas: he has created an exuberant world where surreal things occasionally take place, but the oddest moments jar rather than making strange, perfect sense.
The fugal force of Harvey’s dramatic whirlwind is Chief of Police, Tom (a profoundly versatile Philip Voss; he also plays a camp compere and leering violinist), whose life is to be turned inside out, by being outed. Journalist, Russell (Sean Gallagher), warns him that a story about his past, homosexual, relationship is about to be leaked to the press: will Tom finally come out of the closet? A mutated form of A Christmas Carol then follows, in which the characters return, wistfully, despairingly, hopefully, to their younger selves: Tom revisits his early, secret relationship with puppy dog friend Billy (Kevin Trainor), journalist Russell returns to his youth spent with Tom’s gay son Mickey (Ben Allen) and above them all hovers wife and mum, Ellie (Paul Wilcox), who dons wings and spies on events from the rafters.
This imaginative vitality does allow for some extraordinarily expressive moments. After Tom and lover Billy are caught tumbling on the sofa together, Tom is exonerated by his Chief of Police dad and innocent lamb Billy is left to deal with the consequences. Liz Ashcroft’s abstract design comes into its own during Billy’s trial. The Judge, scaling the half globe that makes up the back wall, looms above a sinking Billy; the comic strip image reflects the Judge’s magnificent but precarious power and Billy’s incongruous and unjust inferiority. In one on snap shot, Harvey and director Hettie MacDonald magnify the distorting and powerful influence that prejudice against homosexuals exerted over the law.
More powerful scenes follow. After being charged, Billy is sent to aversion therapy to ‘cure’ him of his homosexuality. He is strapped into a chair and, to the soundtrack of a constant hateful chant – ‘dirty, filthy, queer’ – exposed to pounding, relentless projections pornography. What Billy experiences the audience experiences too; we are equally trapped, equally at the mercy of higher powers and equally, inexplicably and unfairly, ashamed.
Moments of inescapable empathy, such of this one, are revelatory and exhilarating. Yet, between these bright sparks are black holes, where the characters do not work and the drama fizzles out. The weakest link is Tom’s wife Ellie, who has few flashback scenes in her own right but instead functions as the link between everyone else’s lives. She repeatedly stumbles across her dead or dying son. She soars above London, flying alongside her son. She chats to a filcidal father on a mountaintop.
In short, she does strange things – supposedly magical realism but the magic doesn’t do the trick. Paula Wilcox doesn’t seem entirely sure what to make of her part. Her performance feels brittle and, whether in surreal or real scenes, out of place. It doesn’t help that Harvey never really lets the fantastical elements in this play soar: he keeps one foot of Wilcox’s character firmly on the ground and lets the other fly off into the heavens. Wilcox’s character is required to witness surreal happenings and, later, comment on them as if they were real. Rather than threading this purposefully fractured piece together, this tactic actually risks highlighting its inconsistencies.
Other characters fall fowl of the prowling structure. The story of dying son Micky (Ben Allen) is a strong and sad one, but his scenes often feel perfunctory; there to highlight another shift in the march towards gay rights rather than his own, unique, journey. In a similar manner to mother Ellie, it feels like he is there for an all too palpable reason. This means that although there are some transcendent scenes nestled in this play, some moments feel over-calculated.
Near the end, father Tom finally visits his son in hospital, after avoiding him and his sexuality for most of Mike’s lifetime. Mike begs his father to sing to him and he does, clutching his hand and singing with an aching, delicate sorrow. Yet even here, one can’t help wincing at the overworked symmetry: the dying son, now blind, finally sees his father and his father’s soul for the first time.
Over-tricksy and overplayed sometimes, but this play still contains images that will linger and fire-bolt one-liners – ‘I want to be screaming when I’m tulips’ - that will stick around for good.
Till 12 June 2010