Park Theatre, London – until 16 March 2019
Martin Sherman’s play title, Gently Down The Stream comes from a moment in time when it seemed like the patrons of an entire hotel spontaneously erupt in an impromptu and joyous rendition of the children’s song after discovering a moment’s happiness.
Possibly, in part, autobiographical, Gently doesn’t so much meander into London’s Park Theatre, but gushes uncontrollably, simultaneously unleashing a torrent of laughter, hurt, pain and undeniable pleasure. This astonishing production, directed by Sean Mathias, is a triumph.
Today’s youth can only imagine what life must have been like for homosexuals pre-1967. Today we are one of the most liberal, tolerant countries in the world but an older generation of men and women remember the bad old days.
“They were miserable!” exclaims Jonathan Hyde’s beautifully observed Beau, an ageing, gay cocktail pianist from New Orleans, now settled in West London, whose life reveals itself to be a series of tragic encounters and disappointments.
Sherman delivers a brilliantly funny, deeply moving and wonderfully engaging story about an autumn-spring romance between a 28-year-old, manic depressive city lawyer (mergers and acquisitions) and a 62-year-old unassuming piano player who also happens to be a marvellous raconteur.
But it is an extraordinary, life-affirming, tour de force by Hyde which steals the show, bringing the piece to life with an accent as soft as honey and a quiet elegance, wit and charm which is utterly captivating.
The two generations are lifetimes apart. Beau had arranged a night of sex with a stranger through a dating app but, the morning after, young Rufus doesn’t want to leave.
“What am I doing here with this child,” he says out loud. “I’m old enough to be your ancestor!”
But, despite the age difference Rufus pretty much gatecrashes Beau’s life and the intrusion isn’t resisted.
The young pup is fixated with the past and yearns for stories. He teases them out of his elderly lover and, in a series of monologues to Rufus’s video camera, a reluctant Beau opens up about lives and loves, all lost through AIDs, prejudice and tragedy.
It’s witty and heartbreaking but proves cathartic. After a lifetime keeping secrets and living in the shadows, Beau can finally find some sort of happiness.
In return he cares for the volatile Rufus, who refuses to take medication for his bi-polar.
But always on his mind is the age difference and the inevitability of how the relationship will end.
Ben Allen gives a strong and vibrant turn as Rufus, a child of the 21st century who is a mass of contradictions and emotions.
Harry Lawtey comes into the story late on, as tattooed “performance artist” Harry, and, thankfully, doesn’t perform his pièce de résistance that involves a mobile phone and a bodily orifice.
Gently Down The Stream runs on the P200 stage at Park Theatre until March 16.
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