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It is amazing to think that US playwright and long-time London resident Martin Sherman is now 80, and that it has been 40 years since his play Bent, now considered a modern classic, made his name.
This new play, which premiered at the Public Theatre in New York in 2017, is in many ways a glorious swan song, pulling together many of the themes which have preoccupied his earlier work and it's given a solid staging by Sean Mathias.
It's an elegiac portrait of an intergenerational romance between Beau, an older American cocktail pianist living in London, and Rufus, a much younger but rather quirky lawyer. Sherman uses the romance to explore, with great delicacy and insight, the trajectory of gay men since the late Forties to the present day. Beau’s generation were brought up to believe they weren’t allowed to love but now have to come to terms with a younger generation who have no doubt but they have every right to do so. They also want marriage and babies and Sherman underlines just how far gay men have come in a relatively short time.
Ben Allen’s Rufus, all manic energy, is like many young gay men in that he romanticizes a better past, in this case mid-20th century era New York, through which Beau of course lived. While they may have hooked up via Grindr (the play begins in 2001) Rufus had already singled Beau out when he’d learned that he’d played piano for the cabaret legend Mabel Mercer, whom he idolizes. For the uninitiated - English born, mixed race, Mercer was a legend of Paris and later New York supper rooms where her singular style and impeccable phrasing influenced many great singers including Sinatra. Rufus asks to record Beau’s reminiscences until Beau’s had enough "You’re turning me into Grey Gardens", he gasps. For Rufus wallowing in such nostalgia shields him from his own particular torments with manic depression, something about which Beau is wary.
Beau’s aim is "not to have any more damage" in his life, having survived two big romances, one which ended in appalling horror with a homophobic torching of a bar in his native New Orleans and the other with a peripatetic actor/manager who dragged him round the Isles of Greece, staging the Greek classics to bemused locals.
The May-December romance disturbs Beau and while he implores Rufus to live his own life with men his own age, when Rufus eventually does get swept away by someone else, a young performance artist Harry (Harry Lawtey), Beau is devastated. Sherman is at his best here in stripping bare the heartbreak and Jonathan Hyde lends Beau a commanding grace which explains his appeal. He also delivers Beau’s monologues, recounting his early life, with just the right air of poetic detachment.
Sherman takes a dim view of Rufus' wallowing in an idealized past but also of Beau's trepidation about embracing the new gay lifestyles. Beau is eventually won over though when left briefly looking after the boys' new baby daughter. It's an unashamedly sentimental ending but forgivable in a story which has covered so much ground so expertly.