Above the Stag Theatre, London – until 6 April 2019
Romance Romance, the all-male gay musical which opened at the Above the Stag Theatre in Vauxhall, is a beautiful and ornate chocolate box of a production. This new adaptation gender-flips the 1987 Broadway original which featured three heterosexual couples and explored deceit and fidelity in relationships.
Comprising two separate one-act plays (unrelated bar the unifying theme of love), we move from 19th century upper-class Vienna to 21st century upper-class New York state in a flurry of beautiful homes, silk dressing gowns, and soft pink light. The plots of both are lightweight: a wealthy but jaded man-about-town pretends to be an impoverished artist to try to meet someone who loves him for more than his money and falls in love with another wealthy but bored dandy who is also pretending to be… you get the drift.
Their delicate and saccharine romance reaches moments of near-drama when one or other idly ponder how their poverty-stricken other half can afford to splash money on first class travel and vacations, but even their eventual joint exposure doesn’t cause more than a brief uneasy moment. Flash forward a hundred years and two married men, best friends since college, spend a long night discussing — but no more than discussing — the possibility of cheating on their respective husbands.
As a production, it is utterly lovely. Like being cocooned in a music box made of silk and feathers. The cast is uniformly excellent, the 19th-century piece in particular performed with charming arch uber-campness. The songs are delightful if not especially memorable (the witty and fresh choreography and effervescent energy more than compensating) and many scenes, especially a perfectly performed musical number about aging in the second half, are extremely funny.
It feels pedantic to pick holes in such a sweet frothy production; like kicking a particularly fluffy kitten or putting a fist into a lemon meringue pie. But I keep going backward and forwards trying to interrogate the political subtext of the play, or decide whether there even was one. One the one hand, it’s refreshing and even liberating to see happy low-stakes gay romances on stage after so many decades of gay theatre = AIDS. (The main exception to that rule, Bent, isn’t exactly a laugh a minute. The LGBT stage canon desperately needs more joy and fluff, and where better to steal it than the worlds of 19th century Vienna, and musical theatre?) And truly there’s something comforting and weirdly hypnotic about the lack of real conflict. But on the other hand all six lead characters seem so firmly to inhabit a world of unquestioned wealth and privilege, there is such a complete absence of diversity, it’s frustrating to not see this explored more. The production blurb teases: “Two bored high-society lovers disguise themselves as struggling members of the working class. Can their love survive without the comforts and luxuries they’re used to?” But we don’t see this; both continue to spend money freely, and neither seriously questions how a supposedly impoverished person can afford such luxuries. Perhaps this is all a very subtle clever satire on the obliviousness of the ultra-privileged? Perhaps watching two gay men in long-term monogamous marriages agonise over the very possibility of infidelity is stereotype-breaking in and off itself? Perhaps, at the end of the day, portraying same-sex love in all its sweet, stupid, boring, beautiful, young, old, ice cream-eating, black tie-wearing glory — perhaps that is revolutionary enough?