Park Theatre, London – until 12 August 2017
The premiere of Kevin Elyot’s final play, Twilight Song, in the 50th anniversary year of the decriminalisation of homosexuality, is a fitting tribute to a creator who writes honest and open queer theatre. And as such, it’s a bittersweet tale, effortlessly interweaving stories of past regrets and frustrated presents – Basil (Paul Higgins) and Isabelle (Bryony Hannah) unhappily married, all for show and propriety; Charles (Hugh Ross) and Harry (Philip Bretherton) clearly with hidden feelings for each other but remaining apart, again for the sake of what is proper. It’s 1961 you see – no one is allowed to be gay, to have abortions, to be true to themselves.
But Anthony Banks’ production is somewhat muted, preferring instead to remain prim and twee rather than exposing and raw. It’s a strange directorial choice that transports this play into an 80s sitcom at times, witty language thrown around with double entendre and hidden queer jokes. At least in the opening scene anyway – a present-day son Barry (Higgins) living a closeted life with his mother, until estate agent-cum-escort Skinner (Adam Garcia) comes in for a ‘valuation’. Higgins and Garcia are proficient actors, Higgins in particular with an innocent, somewhat stumbling personality that is completely unaware of the subtext in the exchange. But it feels like Banks opens up the canned laughter after each punchline, the simplistic and plain conversation lacking depth or punch.
As the record player plays, rewinds the years and marks the passing of the age, the same house but a generation earlier to superficially happy Basil and Isabelle, wining and dining old family Harry and Charles despite not having the money. Suddenly the script comes alive, not because of the direction, which still feels downplayed and archaic. The experienced pairing of Harry (Bretherton) and Charles (Ross) tingles with forbidden chemistry, two old war friends to the outside world and much more to each other. This relationship is layered, full of the emotional complexity that Elyot is renowned for.
Gradually the mood of Twilight Song shifts – as sunset fades into blackness, so the play spirals downward from affable comedy into darker territory. But this shift is unnoticeable, again an unusual choice by Banks not to be more pronounced in this downturn. The attempt at subtlety is detrimental to the story – it lacks the drive to grip its audience and drag them down too. As such, the final moments where the twists are revealed seem lackadaisical, a shame given the finesse inherent in Elyot’s final production.