The coughing canary

I was too scared to come out in the 80s, too dumb to come out in the 90s, and already gaydead by the noughties, having hit thirty and therefore ceased to exist except in shadowy, wraith-like form – the film version would be called Logan’s Ring.

Jonathan Harvey’s new play Canary is no Logan’s Ring. It’s more Close Encounters of the Predictable Kind. Imagine a velvet bag full of the usual ‘gay drama’ tropes shaken and cast onto an Ikea coffee table and then transcribed directly into Final Draft and you’re 90% there.

Cliches are cliches because they’re true, of course, and the play is sufficiently true to life to spark a raw nerve once or twice – despite very little resemblance to my own history. It is, though, desperately predictable and hand-wringingly earnest.

There is a message, and the message is that gays have fought, and lost, and won, and lost, and won, and now are in danger of losing again. The story moves back and forth in time following a group of people as they struggle with events: the criminality of the 60s, the militant liberalism of the 70s, the confusion and fear of the 80s, and the complacency of the present day.

You will hardly be surprised to learn that AIDS features prominently. I confess I rolled my eyes when a character started coughing for no apparent reason; I half-expected a Pythonesque neon arrow labelled PLOT POINT to descend from the stage loft above him. This is a play with no time for subtlety.

We skip between eras so rapidly there is no chance to develop any character: the obvious things happen, and then we move on. Despite this some of these vignettes work well – the best feature ‘guest appearances’ from Mary Whitehouse and Margaret Thatcher – and I wonder whether the play started as a collection of sketches later stitched poorly together with Tesco Value plot threads.

The cast do uniformly well with what they’re given, all but one doubling or trebling up in different roles between which they switch with dizzying rapidity. Paula Wilcox, once a Liver Bird, plays scouse and Thatch. Ryan Sampson – a pocket thesp seen in Doctor Who a few years ago as an annoying American youth in the thrall of similarly pocket Sontarans – does well to slowly ramp up the camp in one role while also playing a striking 80s miner. Philip Voss (caution: 90s web design) drags up nicely as Mary Whitehouse; if only we could harness energy from her spinning grave.

The set is minimalist but very effective and necessarily versatile given the frequent scene changes and occasional periods in which two eras clash on stage.

I wanted to like the play, I really did. I enjoyed Harvey’s Beautiful Thing for what it was – a fairytale – despite the schmaltz. With Gimme Gimme Gimme and more recently Beautiful People he has modernised camp comedy on TV, even showing camp schoolboys without as far as I can tell incurring the wrath of the redtops. My disappointment with the play stems from the clunky stereotyping and plain lack of originality.

We are surely past the point where a gay play or film or TV show or soap plot is about gay rather than about people. Were this an educational piece for schools explaining the modern history of homosexuality in the UK it would be effective and might counter a deal of uninformed prejudice. As a night out for grown-ups who value character and plot and perhaps something new, unexpected and challenging, it’s lazy and, for me, it fails.

But hey, it has hot young actors in pants.

Avaragado’s rating: a small punnet of cherry tomatoes

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