People bought and sold: Queer Season opening night at the King’s Head Theatre

People bought and sold: Queer Season opening night at the King’s Head Theatre

From July to September, The King’s Head pub theatre will be running a 6 week queer season to promote LGBTQ+ voices in the London fringe theatre scene. Sophia Moss attends opening night and takes in two very different takes on the queer experience and abuses of power.

For Reasons That Remain Unclear

“So you know a lot about bottoming out, do you?” Patrick (Simon Haines), a middle-aged Hollywood screenwriter, croons at Conrad (Cory Peterson), an older priest. Conrad looks alarmed by the innuendo, but he seems to be playing along. “You penetrate with your words, Patrick,” he says.

Patrick and Conrad meet randomly on the streets of ‘90s Rome when the priest asks the younger man for directions. The pair end up going to lunch, stop off at a bar and we first see them in Patrick’s lavish hotel room, admiring the view and listening to the sound of church bells.

The first half hour of For Reasons That Remain Unclear is dripping with sexual energy. It’s unclear whether Patrick is doing it for a joke or out of genuine sexual interest, but Conrad, despite his religious beliefs, is clearly tempted. This would have made an amusing, irreverent and potentially touching story, but there is something far more sinister going on. As the conversation gets darker and the audience starts to realise something isn’t right, we begin to wonder whether both characters will make it out alive.

This is the European premiere of Mart Crowley’s play, but it was first performed in the USA in 1993. Crowley began his career in 1957 before creating the successful off-Broadway play The Boys in the Band, which opened in 1968 and was adapted into a film in 1970.

The Boys in the Band is credited for unapologetically exploring the lives of gay men on stage at a time where homosexuality was still not socially accepted. It presented gay men as versatile, relatable characters without judgment or ridicule. Mart Crowley, now 82, is openly gay himself.

For Reasons That Remain Unclear also centres on homosexual characters, but their sexuality is not the focus of the play. This story explores the different reactions people have to childhood abuse, the nature of forgiveness and hypocrisy within the Catholic Church. At a time when accusations of abuse within the Catholic Church were starting to gain media attention, this play gave a human face to the abuse statistics, exploring how abuse can affect different people and how they may respond to their abuser.

Despite the serious subject matter, this play is full of humour and innuendo. Some of the tenser sections begin too abruptly, making them feel out of place, but For Reasons That Remain Unclear generally keeps a good balance between comedy and tragedy. There are sprinkles of comedy even when the scenes get unbearably tense and the conversation turns dark.

Photo: Francisco Colinet

The King’s Head theatre has a small staging area which is normally used for minimalistic sets. The set design for this play is not particularly elaborate, but it is entirely believable as an up-market hotel room in Rome.

A fire door, decorated with a simple pink curtain, is transformed into a balcony overlooking the domes of Saint Peter’s. Old-fashioned, upbeat music sets the scene before the play begins. The bed, the table – complete with flowers, an ashtray, a pen and paper – and the open travel bags are simple but detailed. The audience surround the set and, as it is a small area, the actors are often only inches away from us. We can see every detail of their faces, making it feel like we are spying on an important moment in their lives.

Haines and Peterson work well together and organically portray an impressive array of emotions. Some of the subject matter is very hard to tackle, but both actors give convincing performances.

Stories which delve into the murkiness of childhood abuse are at risk of seeming cliched, sensationalist, insensitive or presumptuous. For Reasons that Remain Unclear is uncomfortably detailed in places and some of the lines seem unnatural, as if they were put in to push an idea forward or clarify something for the audience. Yet on the whole, it deals with such a sensitive topic remarkably well.

The ending is frustrating because it doesn’t follow the format we want to see. We want justice to be served, we want to believe that monsters are punished. The audience doesn’t want to see abusers walk free, but that is the uncomfortable reality in many real-world situations.

It is especially upsetting to see that there is no real remorse; it is the victim, not the perpetrator, who understands the extent of the crime.  For Reasons That Remain Unclear doesn’t give the audience the ending they want, but it does make them think.

James Dean Is Dead! (Long Live James Dean)

“Dude or dame, who cares? Hollywood’s all full of sex hungry people. So, all ya need is hunger. I’m always hungry,” says a newly dead James Dean, standing next to a pile of tarmac and a mangled number plate. The set reflects the car crash that ended his life when he was just 24.

James Dean Is Dead! (Long Live James Dean) is a one man show which explores the young actor’s rise to fame, the murky realities of the theatre and film industry in 1950s USA and Dean’s much-speculated sexual appetite.

The plot doesn’t feel too far-fetched, but die-hard fans of Dean may be able to spot inconsistencies. The script is fast-paced, jumping from one scene to another while keeping a basic chronological order, which works well with Kit Edwards’s chatty, upbeat, but ultimately damaged portrayal of the Hollywood icon.

It’s refreshing to see Dean openly describe himself as bisexual. “I had girlfriends and boyfriends. Lots of ‘em,” he says. “I’m no freak though. There are millions like me. Twilight people! Guys and gals.” Dean’s character describes his sexual relationships with men far more than his relations with women, but the homosexual relationships are mostly dominated by abusive power dynamics.

Much of this play describes the power play in both New York and Hollywood, where powerful men would expect sexual favours in return for a shot at fame. One particularly striking passage describes the process as a meat market. “There’s people bought and sold in this city like it’s a butcher’s shop, an abattoir! It’s the meat rack. That’s Hollywood, New York: anywhere there’s always the meat rack. How tasty is your joint?”

Edwards jumps between confident, angry, vulnerable and pensive, ultimately portraying Dean as someone who was damaged by his experiences in the film industry and goes through a string of meaningless one-night stands – unable to sleep, trying to hide how much he was hurt by his failed relationship with Pier Angeli.

It feels like Dean is trying to convince himself, as well as the audience, that he is the bad boy of Hollywood that everyone thinks he is. Early on, Dean says: “Doesn’t bother me so much. I’m horny all the time. Must be hell for the nice boys …. It’s the losers who say it’s hell. The ones who don’t play the game. Walk out of the bedroom, you walk out of Hollywood.”

Later on, he details how the “powerful guys” would size him up, call him “boy”, and expect sexual favours. “’Hey, Boy! Before I cast you kid, I like to get to know my actors better! Know what I mean?’ I sure as shit know what that means. So, you smile and nod. Next thing you’re in his bedroom.”

These descriptions remind one of the Me Too movement, so it’s telling that the original script was written six years before the allegations against people like Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey were well known. It opens up a world that many of us may not be aware of – the world of the “homosexual mafia” as the script describes them, who can make or break dreams if young men are compliant enough.

During the play, Dean reflects on his legacy and worries that he, like the poet Lord Byron, will be remembered for who he slept with rather than what he did. It’s an interesting idea which may well be true, but it feels like the speculation of the author rather than the character.

The mentions of The Little Prince, Dean’s favourite book as a child, are obviously trying to re-enforce the idea of Dean as a young, vulnerable, dreamy child in a scary world, but that also feels a little overplayed. The play seems to end with no real conclusion, which reflects Dean’s sudden death but feels a little disappointing.

For Reasons that Remain Unclear will play at King’s Head Theatre until 25 August.

James Dean is Dead! (Long Live James Dean) will transfer to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and will play at C aquila, C Venues from August 19 to August 17. Tickets here.

Sophia Moss is a theatre reviewer for The Upcoming and The Reviews Hub. Also freelances for Prospect magazine, Ethiad Atlas, Sticky Content and The Sun.

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