King’s Head Theatre, London – until 27 August 2022
Another night at the King’s Head, another feat of astonishing transformation by the chameleonic actor-writer Mark Farrelly. Because delivering one bravura turn as a gay icon isn’t enough apparently (his utterly brilliant Jarman – about Derek – is currently running in repertoire as part of the Islington venue’s ongoing Boys Boys Boys season), Farrelly also reignites his heart-swelling, life-affirming tribute to the self-proclaimed “stately homo of England”, Quentin Crisp. The King’s Head is an appropriate venue for the show as well, since Crisp performed here at the beginning of his career.
This is a magical theatrical miniature, that traces a direct line from Oscar Wilde through Crisp and on to Joe Orton and Kenneth Williams and Julian Clary and beyond. What Farrelly does, in a performance of meticulous detail and breathtaking technique, transcends mere impersonation as he brings the magnificent, mould-breaking Quentin back to life before our very eyes. He captures with unerring precision the swooping vowels and cadences, the amused but slightly detached attitude, epigrammatic wit and the subtle but unmistakable kindness at the heart of this wildly eccentric, joyfully off-kilter human being, whose ninety year life span encompassed prostitution and life modelling, through to being an unlikely style icon and a celebrated raconteur.
The first part is set in the 1960s in Crisp’s infamously dusty Chelsea flat (“Don’t lose your nerve. After the first four years the dirt doesn’t get any worse”) and the second some thirty years later as the octogenarian Quentin prepares to go onstage to delight an adoring audience in his adopted home city of New York. Farrelly deftly suggests the physical frailty of the passing years running in a counter direction to Crisp’s soaring spirit, which flamboyantly flourished later in life as the more enlightened parts of the world at large realised what a gift to humanity he actually was.
Farrelly’s show, directed with an unshowy but potent precision by Linda Marlowe, does little more than represent Crisp the raconteur, and honestly we don’t need any more than that. The man himself managed to combine style AND substance, and so does this solo play. It’s endlessly quotable (“if at first you don’t succeed, failure may be your style”, “never keep up with the Joneses. Drag them down to your level”, “my mother protected me from the world and my father threatened me with it”). It’s also very moving as one marvels at how Crisp retained a fundamental optimism and affection, however cynical, for his fellow humans despite being treated appallingly in early life on account of his undeniable, glorious “otherness”.
If Jarman is the more elaborate, innovative piece of theatre, Naked Hope has real charm and heart, and Mark Farrelly’s central turn is every bit the match of John Hurt’s towering achievement in the Naked Civil Servant film. What both shows share, beyond a terrific central performance and Farrelly’s enviable gift for shaping the bon most of these iconic gay figures into compelling one person scripts, is the encouragement for audiences to go forth and live their best, most authentic lives. That’s a pretty amazing gift to receive. See them both! This is life-enhancing theatre.