King’s Head Theatre, London – until 3 June 2017
A chill-out that summarises the current state of Britain’s chemsex scene – drugs, sex parties and damaged backstories are all part of the package. 5 Guys Chillin’ is a verbatim consolidation of how this sub-sector is perceived by those on the inside.
Peter Darney writes a typical evening for five men drawn to each other by sexual attraction and emotional validation, but the show reaches so much further than this small circle. Its success over the last three years validates its relevance – multiple UK and international tours and a pronounced response from every audience. Walkouts are not uncommon and happen on this occasion too; people are so affected by the truth in the production. It pulls no punches and tells no lies.
It is interesting to watch a show such as this with a completely new cast, observe how fresh eyes interpret the details of these complex and layered characters. Previous productions have been galvanised by a single actor who connects with their part on a deeper level than the rest. In the past, it was original cast member Elliot Hadley that led the pack. As R (now played by Tom Ratcliffe), Hadley could change the tone of the show in an instant – so desperate to please those around him that his stories of hardcore sexual encounters climaxed to harrowing revelations.
Hadley takes a step back in this production, relinquishing an on-stage role in favour of associate director, but his presence is still felt in the overall vision of the production. This version is instantly more intense – nudity is no longer relegated to the shadows but paraded in public; pregnant pauses and non-verbal cues are accentuated to magnify the script. 5 Guys Chillin’ in its current form has a stronger overall voice that transcends the writing or cast performances, a subtext with visceral intent.
Without Hadley to lead from the front, there is a void in the cast that B (Gareth Watkins) steps in to fill. B (Watkins) and R (Ratcliffe) are in a polyamorous relationship that feels simultaneously comforting and unstable. Each egg on the other to divulge more and more about their extreme lifestyle, but B (Watkins) is the dominant partner here. Watkins balances arrogance with an undercurrent of rage, a coiled spring constantly on the verge of exploding. But then the drugs kick in and he is pacified, fully embracing the aim of the chill. A cauldron of emotions bubble below the surface and Watkins is able to access each one in an instant – never over the top or reactionary, but a pre-meditated, conscious decision that marks him out as the most magnetic actor of the bunch. The final few moments in particular – B perched on the couch, the others cross-legged on the floor in front of him (like schoolkids at story time) – mark him out as an exceptional storyteller.
The others give equally credible and novel performances, but never quite match up. Host J (David Palmstrom) has an alpha style of aggression that hasn’t come through in past incarnations, but lacks variety in his monologues and tends to drop out of character when not the centre of attention. Similarly, M (George Fletcher) wavers in his characterisation, overly reactionary and lacking in awareness. Reticent arrival to the party PJ (George Bull) and R (Ratcliffe) are stronger; both understand non-verbal cues and judge the pace of their parts with dynamic variety. But these two tend to overact certain passages, as if revelling too much in the best lines they have to offer.
In many ways, the relevance of 5 Guys Chillin’ transcends individual contributions – Darney’s craft is unparalleled in concentrating the most poignant topics of the scene into an hour-long masterpiece. The actors and direction, regardless of competency, contribute to the overall picture that leaves its audience shocked, awed and in tears. We leave the apartment behind while the cast remain, introspective and static, embroiled in their own emotional turmoil. The atmosphere is sombre, the mood reflective. In this instant, every member of the team is synchronised, a final visual that perfectly summarises the power of this show.