Trafalgar Studios, London – until 2 February 2020
If I have understood the timeline correctly the latest incarnation of Kevin Elyot’s debut play Coming Clean is a revival of a revival. The piece premiered in 1982, was given a 35th anniversary production in 2017 by the King’s Head; this transferred to Trafalgar Studios this time last year and has now been revived for a final (?) run at the same venue. Probably seen as infinitely more daring in its original incarnation, the play is in many respects a conventional tale about relationships, human anxiety and betrayal.
Tony and Greg live together in north London in a semi-open relationship taking full advantage of the hedonistic lifestyle accessible to them in an era which immediately precedes the rise of AIDS. Neither being particularly house proud, Tony sees fit to employ the cleaning services of Robert, a struggling young actor and thus precipitates his own downfall as his partner falls for the young man’s not inconsiderable charms. Tony’s reaction to discovering Greg’s infidelity forms the core of the latter part of the play where the tone of the material changes from comic to something much more serious.
Tony, as played by the excellent Lee Knight, is (if I may be excused a mixed metaphor) at the centre of the eternal triangle. His devotion to Greg is complete and if he participates in the self-indulgent decadence of the era it seems to be more because he feels that he should, rather than that he wants to. Tony would, seemingly, settle for monogamy and security and seemed to me determined to resist Robert’s charms in pursuit of this ideal; perhaps his self-restraint is one of the reasons for his utter sense of betrayal when Greg succumbs. Knight’s shock and disappointment were superbly conveyed in the last quarter of the play and gave the character much more depth than earlier scenes might have suggested.
I am sorry to say that I found Greg a far less convincing character. Somewhat cold and aloof he seems to me even less likely to participate in the sexual freedoms of the era, though his “sudden” relationship with Robert really doesn’t come as the surprise that it is perhaps supposed to be. Stanton Plummer-Cambridge’s performance is fully commensurate with the character as written; the trouble is that I don’t think the character is written very well.
Jonah Rzeskiewicz’s portrayal of Robert grew on me as the play progressed. Starting out slightly tongue tied and apparently naïve it soon becomes apparent that this poem writing, Mozart loving, cordon bleu cooking, resting actor has an agenda of his own. Ultimately there is even a slight sense of pleasure revealed in his driving a wedge between his two erstwhile employers.
I must confess I do have a bit of trouble with the portrayal of the two remaining characters in the piece, both of whom are played by Elliott Hadley. Firstly, he is an uber camp next door neighbour, forever cruising and cottaging (in this pre-Grindr era); latterly, he becomes a German leather clad Village People lookie-likie.
To be honest, not having looked in the programme, I thought the latter was actually the former character in some sort of bizarre role-playing scenario; the decision to double up was clearly an economic rather than an artistic one. Whereas Hadley’s comic timing is razor sharp, unfortunately he has been given clichés to work with. It may all have been very daring in the early 80s but, sadly, it does not quite work now; any writer giving us those sorts of stereotypes in this day and age would, quite rightly, be condemned. That said most of the big laughs of the evening come from the outrageous posturing and acid delivery which Hadley musters – he is clearly having a ball. I know I’ll never look at either an éclair or a doughnut in quite the same way again!
Direction by Adam Spreadbury-Maher was efficient and economical and Nic Farman’s lighting enhanced the varying moods of the scenes. Designer Amanda Mascarenhas’s set was a bit of a tight fit in the confines of the Trafalgar studio but had some very pleasing touches such as the red wine stain on the carpet and the poster for Michael Jackson’s then contemporary “Thriller”. The costumes screamed early 80s – particularly the 501s and tube socks.
While I find it a little surprising that this production has had various iterations over the last few years, it is a valuable reminder of how far things have progressed since its initial outing in the early 80s. That this was a fledging work from Elyot was quite evident and it would be another ten years before his masterwork My Night With Reg was produced. Starting out as a raucous comedy (which put me in mind of Jonathan Harvey’s sitcom Gimme Gimme Gimme) it took on much darker tones but to my mind never really quite decided what it wanted to be. An epilogue scene involving Tony’s encounter with a one-night stand (introducing a new character far too late in the plot to make coherent sense) seemed superfluous and, to my mind, detracted from the main plotline. It was never really made clear what became of Greg, Robert or William either, so I found the ending rather unsatisfactory. That said, the play was a good reminder of where the sorely missed Elyot began and a telling portrait of a facet of gay relationships long before such writing entered the mainstream.
Production photos by Ali Knight
This review first appeared (in abridged form) on the website of London Theatre Reviews