Theatre review - The Boys in the Band, West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds

THE BOYS IN THE BAND Daniel Boys, Jack Derges, Mark Gatiss and Ben Mansfield. Photo by Darren Bell

THE BOYS IN THE BAND Daniel Boys, Jack Derges, Mark Gatiss and Ben Mansfield. Photo by Darren Bell - Credit: Archant

Mark Gatiss stars in the first major revival of this iconic play in almost 20 years.

You are cordially invited to a birthday party. There’ll be cake, dancing, booze, seven close friends, an uptight man in a dinner suit and a topless cowboy with pecs you can bounce a pound coin off.

Sounds fun, doesn’t it? And it is, until the laughs give way to self-loathing and the playful jabs lead to slaps, punches and bloodied noses.

Forty-eight years on from its off-Broadway premier, in the year before the Stonewall riots initiated the modern gay rights movement, The Boys in the Band is still shocking in its depiction of homophobia. We’ve seen ignorance-fuelled queer-bashing many times before, but this still feels fresh and raw and deeply, deeply troubling because the hatred is so insidious and internalised.

At the centre of it all is party host Michael, a maelstrom of malevolence played by Ian Hallard, who teeters on a tightrope of emotion throughout before plummeting dramatically into the dark depths of self-loathing.

He welcomes his friends – Donald, a directionless writer, played with warmth and humanity by Daniel Boys; Emory, an interior designer, who gets the biggest laughs of the night thanks to the superb timing and tom-foolery of James Holmes; Bernard, played with an adept light touch by Greg Lockett; commercial artist Larry, given swagger and honesty by Ben Mansfield; and school-teacher Hank, a conservative man with a liberal, loving heart played with a particularly moving quiet passion by Nathan Nolan – and, when they’re all sated with red wine and cracked crab, dissects their lives with a truth-telling party game that makes Russian roulette look like a bit of harmless fun.

But wait. There’s an even more deadly viper in the room; a viper in a velvet jacket with poison so strong it burns. Birthday boy Harold, a ‘Jew fairy’ with a pock-marked face and hair that strays perilously into afro territory, is the reason the friends are gathered – and the reason many of us are in the theatre.

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Put bluntly, we want to see if Mark Gatiss – the tall, smiley one from The League of Gentlemen, Doctor Who, Sherlock, Nighty Night and many, many more TV hits – can hold an audience at close quarters (very close in fact when it comes to the Playhouse’s smaller Courtyard theatre). Thankfully, he delivers. From his teasingly late entrance, just as the blackout comes to mark the interval, to his Bette Davis-worthy exit on the arm of his birthday gift – a stupidly beautiful and beautifully stupid cowboy-a-gram played with verve by Jack Derges – Gatiss is venomously charming, with a mesmerising air tinged with barely restrained ferocity that keeps his fellow actors, and the audience, on the edge of their seats.

When Michael attempts to destroy his old college roommate – and surprise party guest – Alan, an urbane, manly man played skilfully by John Hopkins (picture Mad Men’s Don Draper having a seriously bad night out with the boys and you won’t be far off), you know it can only be a matter of time before Harold returns the favour, but this time with the toxicity level turned up to ten.

If all this makes The Boys in the Band sound like a bleak, blacker-than-black night out; well, it is. But it’s also a ridiculously funny, smart, incisive, joyous and thought-provoking wild ride of a play that makes Abigail’s Party look tame in comparison.

If you get an invitation, go. And if you don’t, gatecrash.

Jo Haywood