The TheatreguideLondon Review
. . . or Angels In Britain, as it might also be called.
new play is openly a companion piece to Tony Kushner's epic of America
in the AIDS years, employing clear parallels and open borrowings (along
with some echoes of Nicholas de Jongh's Plague Over England) to tell
the story of homosexual life in Britain, from arrests and forced
aversion therapy in the Nineteen Fifties, through Gay Lib in the
Seventies and AIDS in the Eighties, to
Graham-Norton-is-family-entertainment in the Naughties.
Harvey's play is
not in the same league as Kushner's, and Hettie Macdonald's production
is too hit-and-miss to evoke the same theatrical excitement. But if you
don't know Angels In America, Canary can serve as a useful and
generally entertaining (and occasionally moving) history lesson.
The hook on which
Harvey hangs his illustrated history lecture is a prominent and married
police chief who has just been outed, and whose thoughts and memories
prepare him to decide how to respond. (And one of the play's
limitations can be seen right there. This one
not-particularly-sympathetic man's dilemma is not big enough to carry
the epic scope the play reaches for, and besides, there's really only
one possible ending.)
His memories of the
Fifties and Sixties, and his awareness of a younger generation's
experience of the Eighties and beyond, make up the plot of the play,
presented in a string of short scenes that vary from serious to
satirical (Arch-puritan Mary Whitehouse is cheerfully ridiculed), from
realistic to dreamlike (One direct steal from Kushner is a female
character - the cop's wife - whose fantasies carry her across time and
space to interact magically with others).
But despite the
chronological jumping around and the doubling and redoubling of roles,
too much of the evening just plods along without theatrical excitement
or even forward movement.
It really isn't
until the second act that the play really comes alive, with a comic
scene of cast members planted in the audience heckling a Mary
Whitehouse speech, and several movingly dramatic scenes involving an
And neither play
nor production ever achieve the epic political resonances they clearly
strive for. The title refers to the claim that homosexuals are the
canaries in the mine, the indicator of how dangerous society's
repressive impulses are. But despite the comic turns of Mrs. Whitehouse
and a more sinister appearance by Mrs. Thatcher (briefly playing the
role of Roy Cohn in Angels In America), and despite rather awkwardly
dragging in the miners' strike, the play never really gives a sense of
the world outside this handful of characters.
Philip Voss does
his best to make the cop a real character rather than a plot device,
and he clearly has fun doubling as a 1970s queen and especially as Mrs.
Whitehouse. Ben Allen is strong as the AIDS sufferer, and Ryan Sampson
and Sean Gallagher effectively play younger and older versions of the
Graham Norton-ish figure who serves as the play's moral voice.
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Review - Canary - Hampstead 2010