Tackling the topic of drug addiction among gay men, Paul Harvard’s debut play provides the perverse pleasure of seeing a piece about a health issue that has nothing to do with coronavirus. It’s escapism of a sort, I suppose, but GHBoy proves grim without being hard hitting and is, regrettably, rambling.
An impressive sincerity
Capably directed by Jon Pashley, the show is well acted. Very much a vehicle for Jimmy Essex, in the demanding lead role of Robert, there’s an impressive sincerity to the writing and the performance. But understanding or sympathising with Robert is a challenge: a middle-aged man saying he needs to grow up isn’t much of an excuse for so much bizarrely infantile behaviour.
Robert’s problems – self-medication with drugs and sex, driven by low self-esteem, abuse and his father’s death – arrive on stage in a torrent. So quickly, in fact, that there’s little time to really know the character and scant background detail. While what happens sounds dramatic – along with the inclusion of a crime story – too many rapid incidents make GHBoy confusing.
A central scene – where Robert’s conversation with his mother and his friend are interwoven – shows promise. There is a sense of mounting pressure and of a man trapped by his decisions. But this technique only works the once. Most of the time, overlapping dialogue with flashbacks and fantasies, scenes feel truncated and cinematic rather than theatrical.
There’s strong support for Essex’s performance to enjoy. Robert’s youthful lover and his therapist, played by Marc Bosch and Devesh Kishore respectively, both do well and Harvard has managed to make these smaller roles effective. There’s also an impressive performance from Sylvester Akinrolabu, who plays different sexual partners for Robert with clarity.
Ultimately the play’s problems mount and prove inescapable. Harvard has taken on too much. So much so that the script seems to resort to two finales. A reprise with characters confronting Robert summarises his problems without adding drama. Then a suggestion that Robert’s art therapy may prove a solution is offered as an unconvincing parting note. Neither conclusion amounts to much despite the considerable effort taken by all involved.
Until 20 December 2020
Photos by Bettina John