The fourth and final Cultural Recovery Fund funded show from production company Seabright has been, like its predecessors, filmed at Wilton’s Music Hall before a live audience and is being streamed via stream.theatre. This is Mark Farrelly’s homage to wilful eccentricity and outré lifestyle Quentin Crisp: Naked Hope. It makes a pleasing end to this short season of eclectic productions which has also featured a semi biographical piece about singer Nina Simone, a celebration of sitcom Friends and a positive look at the subject of depression.
Farrelly’s self-penned one man play about “one of the stately homos of England” has been doing the rounds since it first appeared in 2014 and tells the story of someone who refused to compromise their principles, style or sexuality in order to conform to the norms of the time. Only becoming famous after his biography, The Naked Civil Servant, was turned into a TV drama in the 1970s, Crisp became a celebrated raconteur and wit eventually choosing to settle in New York where he continued his radically different lifestyle, but nobody seemed to mind quite so much.
The play is crafted in two clearly defined sections. In the first we see Crisp, already in his sixties, in his Chelsea flat which, for someone who oozes fastidiousness about most areas of life, is permanently filthy – “after the first four years the dust won’t get any worse”. Here we are given a potted biography of the earlier part of his life and the difficulties he faced with his family as well as the opprobrium he garnered in public. We learn about his time as a rent boy and artist’s model and how the army rejected him on the grounds of sexual deviancy. He reflects on the famous film of himself and John Hurt’s star making turn. All of this is laced with the wit and barbed aphorisms that came to be Crisp’s trademark.
In the second section we move to post fame New York where there is a re-creation of one of his trademark “Evening With…” performances. Crisp’s philosophical musings about his life and, more importantly, lifestyle help to complete a picture of someone fighting not only the world but in many respects themselves.
Farrelly’s performance is, as far as I can judge, uncannily accurate – given that I’m basing this on Hurt’s interpretation being on the button which Crisp himself seemed to think it was. The swooping elongated vowels sounds are well to the fore and the ability to strike a pose persists even into later life. I liked the way the actor clearly differentiated between the two different ages with a slightly more querulous voice and less upright posture in the later section. Interestingly in the section break we see Farrelly changing costume and removing one wig and donning another.
This reinforces the idea of putting on a new persona which, of course, was Crisp’s whole way of presenting himself to the world at large. Towards the climax of the play there’s a Q and A from Crisp helped by a member of the audience. Although this was in danger of becoming a pantomime turn I thought Farrelly managed to apply the brakes when needed. As with the other plays in this “series” the piece is very simply staged with a minimum of furnishing/props but, as it is the words that are all important, this is more than appropriate. The play is ably directed by veteran of several of her own solo shows and Berkoff alumnus Linda Marlowe.
Although I already knew a lot of the Crisp story, it’s great to hear all the one liners again recreated by an actor keenly embodying the essence of this trailblazer. Whether Quentin Crisp can be classified as a real person is a moot point – born plain Dennis Pratt his Crisp persona was just as much of a construct as Farrelly’s on stage but that’s part of the cleverness of this show. Either way it seems entirely likely that without Crisp’s rebellion against those things perceived as norms, society would not have made as much headway as it has in accepting people who sit outside this sphere. In the end Crisp’s philosophy (and from Farrelly’s remarks in a short post show address his too) is summed up neatly in Sting’s famous song about him: “Be yourself no matter what they say”.