Some revivals feel more relevant than others, and Philip Osment’s 1980s depiction of gay life in London certainly has 21st century echoes, with two hate crimes in the last week and calls within Birmingham schools to stop discussing homosexual relationships with pupils.
It’s 1988, Section 28 is in effect, newspapers are scaremongering about AIDS, and young Luke, seventeen, is wondering how to tell his mum that he fancies boys.
Osment’s play flits across time, space and setting, utilising a lot of third person narration and a complex dramatic timeline to bring stories together.
With no clear dictate on sets, Ardent Theatre have created their own idea of a basic set and props, and let words and imagination do the rest: so we are in the school, the kitchen, the restaurant, the disco, the theatre, the ramshackle house, the estate, the armchair in the attic, the park, the airport, and the 70s pride march.
The actors, too, have more than one character to play in most cases, sometimes leaving the stage in one guise to reappear in the next scene as someone totally different. As the Q&A which followed the performance made clear, this required a lot of collaboration backstage between the actors to help with quick costume changes.
This Island’s Mine tells many stories – Martin (Luke’s uncle), Mark (a chef who gets fired due to hysteria about spreading disease), Marianne (Martin’s wife of convenience) and her partner Debbie (and Debbie’s young son Dave), Marianne’s father Stephen (implicated in the export of infected blood), Jody (black, with a secret of her own from America), Selwyn (Mark’s partner, actor, hassled by police), Miss Rosenblum (Martin’s landlady, lost wartime romance), and more.
This places heavy demands on both cast and director – and although Osment was able to have some input and see the first performance before his recent death, his involvement was not as close as it was in the original Gay Sweatshop production.
There’s a cat, too, who links Miss Rosenblum with the Russian princess she was once companion to. He’s a plot catalyst as well as a silent narrator to the house in which Luke sleeps his first dreams of love. He’s seen as a bundle of multicolored wool – a kind of rainbow Bagpuss.
Philip Wilson directs, but it was clear from the Q&A that this revival was a company creation, exploring both text and setting. Wilson created a timeline which tied together the dramatic events depicted with those which happened, historically, around them, taking the cue that Martin was born in 1950 and so would have been Luke’s age at the time of decriminalization of gay activity.
Eighteen characters, seven cast members. A timespan of over forty years. Uncomprehending fathers (Frank, Stephen), issues of age and race, unrequited love. Children growing and finding their feet (Luke, Dave). Key scenes from The Tempest, Caliban, Prospero.
This is a pertinent revival from a talented group of actors and creatives. It was a privilege to watch them perform in this thought-provoking piece, and to hear their short discussion afterwards – the “jumble sale” of discarded costumes backstage, the need to project as the theatre “soaks up sound”, their own memories or knowledge of the reality of gay life in 1988.
This Island’s Mine ran at the King’s Head Theatre until 8 June. I saw the penultimate performance.
Production photo credits Mark Douet.