A new year and a new theatre! The new home for this stellar fringe venue, pretty much behind the pub it takes its name from, is a great start to 2024. And it is commendable that the inaugural production is a new play, written by Shaun McKenna and Andrew Van Sickle. The piece can be generously described as safe – a romantic comedy (of sorts) with an eye on the LGBTQ audience that the King’s Head Theatre admirably serves.
The aim is light entertainment, the inspiration (we’re told) screwball comedies from the 1930s and 40s. There are touches of Alan Ayckbourn too, but the play might best be thought of as an openly gay version of Noel Coward’s Private Lives. These are solid sources and the idea of updating them isn’t bad. Maybe it shouldn’t surprise that the play doesn’t live up to them… it’s a big ask after all.
Ex-lovers, Conor and Robbie, who meet again at an art exhibition, had long experimented with an open relationship. They run off together, leaving their new, younger, boyfriends Mal and Rayyan bereft, before a predictable and improbable ending. The problem isn’t that we can guess what happens next – it’s that the dialogue doesn’t sparkle. There’s little wit and the jokes are lacking.
It’s interesting that the younger characters are better written. Or maybe they are just more interesting? At least, it’s a neat point that they behave less like children than the older men. But it’s a shame some less savoury points from McKenna and Van Sickle’s old-fashioned inspiration have been retained – Conor and Robbie’s attitude to waiting staff and the domestic violence in the play do not sit well with trying to make people laugh nowadays. To be fair, there are some attempts at satire that are topical. An unhappy role for a Norwegian hotelier (performed valiantly by Øystein Lode) and new age therapy (using a spoon!) should be easy targets. And Instagram of course. But there isn’t enough originality here and the jokes continue to be poor.
While the play itself leaves a lot of be desired, praise is deserved when it comes to the production. The five cast members all have a tough job but each manage to make their lines light, even when the jokes don’t land. Ashley D Gayle and Robert Rees convince as a couple who have known each other a long time, even if it is hard to care about their characters. Rolando Montecalvo and Jake Mitchell-Jones both have a clear idea of what the piece is trying to do, even if the material limits them. Credit to director Bronagh Lagan who keeps the action tight, touches of farce are handled particularly well, and ensures the show at least has the energy that the script lacks.
Until 10 February 2024
Photo by Geraint Lewis