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A CurtainUp London Review
Harvey takes his title from a quote by the gay activist Peter Tatchell, "Women and gay people are the litmus test of whether a society is democratic and respecting human rights. We are the canaries in the mine." I can't believe that it was as late as 1986 that canaries were phased out as the testers of poisonous gas in Britain's coal mines and machines detecting the gas used instead. But Tatchell makes his point well and while we may think that the great battles for gay equality legislation of the 1960s, gay rights and gay pride of the 1980s and against the terror of the AIDS epidemic in the 1990s have largely been won, there is no doubt that all kinds of religious fundamentalists would want to change affairs and gays and women would get it in the neck first. They are as vulnerable as the little yellow canary, on the cover of the text of Jonathan's Harvey's play, which finds itself surrounded by many larger and predatory crows.
It is remarkable that visiting much of the same territory as Nicholas de Jongh's Plague Over England (review), Harvey also shows he can merge the personal and the political, with harrowing examples of the aversion therapy used by the authorities on gay men to try to change their sexual orientation. Whereas De Jongh's play quoted judges and a Conservative Home Secretary and was coldly satirical, Harvey wittily involves those twin towers of reactionary women— Mrs Mary Whitehouse (Philip Voss), campaigner against filth in the media, particularly on television; and Margaret Thatcher (Paula Wilcox), the Conservative Prime Minister of the 1980s. While we see Mary Whitehouse's conference for her reactionary "Festival of Light" disrupted at Westminster Central Hall by gay campaigners, we later hear Mrs Thatcher discussing with Norman Fowler, her Minister of Health, the wording of a pamphlet informing people about HIV. "I don't like anal intercourse," she says unforgettably in those censorious deep tones objecting to the words rather than the act!
To sketch out the characters: In 2010 Tom (as a young man, Philip McGinley and older, Philip Voss) opens the play with his home besieged by the press, blinding camera flashes shining through the doorway from the street. Tom is a high ranking policeman and caught up in a scandal. As a young man in 1962 he was in a gay relationship with Billy (Kevin Trainor) and when arrested let Billy carry the can saying that he, Tom, had been assaulted. Billy went to prison and was tortured by a psychiatrist administering aversion therapy while Tom married Ellie (Paula Wilcox) and they had two children. Mickey (Ben Allen) and Russell (as a young man Ryan Sampson and older, Sean Gallagher) meet in the 1980s in London where Russell is studying musical theatre. There are musical snatches from Les Miserables and Evita to put us in context. Mickey supports the Miners' strike and later falls victim to AIDS. Openly gay, Russell becomes the host of a reality audition show on television.
Contrasting the outcomes for these four men, Jonathan Harvey weaves their stories with tremendous clarity, humour and humanity. Despite many jumps forward and back across the decades, Hettie Macdonald's fluid direction never has us confused or doubting what we are watching. The props are simple but relevant with scenes changing against a backdrop of a huge semicircular moon. We care about the players, they are men we would want to be our friends in this affectionate play. We are convinced that the clever cast seems much larger than eight with smaller roles taken by each actor. Philip Voss is wonderful in drag as the bigot Mrs Whitehouse, as a fruity Opera house violinist Robin, in red wig, and in uniform as the denying Police Commissioner now brought to book. But I cannot fault any of the hardworking ensemble cast all of whom play their parts well.
I was very impressed by Canary on all levels, great writing, great acting and great direction.
This a welcome return to the theatre for Jonathan Harvey who has been working in television.
For reviews of his earlier plays Beautiful Thing in the USA
Beautiful Thing in London
Out in the Open
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