The UK premiere of Martin Sherman’s play is currently running at the Park Theatre’s 200 seater space in Finsbury Park, directed by Sean Mathias. It was my first visit to this venue, which has a friendly and informal vibe.
Beau (Jonathan Hyde) is an American living in West London. His home is full of creature comforts – books, DVDs, a piano, couches, chairs, a drinks trolley. There’s a staircase up to a landing which leads to the bedroom. The kitchen, complete with whistling kettle, is off the living room.
He’s found a man online, Rufus (Ben Allen), who is more than thirty years younger, British, working in mergers and acquisitions, law-trained, but obsessed with stars from the past, especially Mabel Mercer. It turns out that Beau (“Autumn Leaf” online) was Mercer’s accompanist in her later years.
Rufus moves in, and the two exist in quiet companionship, punctuated by occasional passionate moments. Beau talks of the past in purple (or rose?) tinged monologues – about George, Canadian producer of bad Greek translations and victim of the 80s illness which was turning young men skeletal and sunked-eyed; and Sam, who led the YMCA in song (“Roll, roll, roll your boat/gently down the stream”) during a wartime which gave a bit of hope to pansies and fruits that they might be treated as normal.
Hyde, an Australian actor long resident in England, might waver a bit from Beau’s New Orleans accent, but he gives the character a sense of honesty and emotional engagement. He’s waspishly funny, lovingly caring when Rufus has a depressive crash (“call it manic-depression, not bipolar, which sounds like something in Alaska”), crankily ageing, and fatalistic in not allowing himself to believe “two guys” can be happy.
We hear of his childhood, the “little faggot” eventually abandoned by his family and paid to leave town, of his love of music and promiscuity, and eventually, heartbreakingly, of first love Kip, who had hair he “liked to touch” and who died in a attack which took 31 other lives, with local churches refusing to offer services to their memories, and newspapers musing about remains “in fruit jars”.
Rufus, who thinks about ballet, 30s child stars like Mitzi Green, and decorates the house with a pot plant, cushions, and a rug, is sweet and petulant by turns, but seems to genuinely love Beau both emotionally and physically. It takes a lot to push him away, eventually towards twitchy and tattooed Harry (Harry Lawtey), who moves from torch singer (“The Man I Love”) to earth parent.
There’s a lot of well-researched history on the periphery – Mabel Mercer singing her songs for the queers who were otherwise invisible as lovers, the 1920s pansy performer Gene Malin (“who looked like a man and spoke like a woman”) who obsesses the young hippy Kip, the arson attack on the UpStairs Lounge in 1973, the AIDS crisis, the rise of gay dating apps, civil partnerships and gay marriage.
Moments, though. A scene we might all identify with concerning a frozen tub of Haagan Daas ice-cream becomes bittersweet, a best man’s speech full of love, memories, and hope for the future, with a single tear coursing down. The grace of Nureyev and Fonteyn on the laptop, cuddling with popcorn, the generational gap between longing for the past and hope for the future.
An associate production with the King’s Head Theatre, Islington, Gently Down The Stream is a strong LGBT play (which takes place between 2001 and 2014), but it has something to say to all of us, as love and relationships are universal.
Quite rightly, Jonathan Hyde has been Olivier-nominated this year for his performance in the “Outstanding achievement in affiliate theatre” category.
Gently Down The Stream continues at the Park Theatre until 16th March. For more information, go to https://www.parktheatre.co.uk/whats-on/gently-down-the-stream.