Patrick Wilde is a writer and director who's been a formative influence in British gay theatre since his What’s Wrong With Angry? was first mounted in 90s London. This year he’s directing Fringe First-winner Phillip Meeks’ new bittersweet comedy Keeping Up with the Joans at the Pleasance, starring Susan Penhaligon (Bouquet of Barbed Wire) and Katy Manning (Doctor Who). Features Editor James T Harding caught up with him in the Brooks Bar after the first preview performance to find out more about the show, and where gay theatre is today.
The idea that gays aren’t persecuted any more is bollocks: look at the rest of the world.
Keeping Up with the Joans is about two old ladies, old enemies, now trapped together in a retirement home. Frighted by the slow creep of dementia and manipulated by a care worker with unusual interest in their relationship, they struggle to resolve their long-standing rivalry before its too late.
Patrick explains how the production came about: “Keeping Up with the Joans was part of The Band Plays On festival at the Greenwich Theatre, which I co-produced last September, which was to find new gay plays, or plays about gay themes.
“As a director you don’t always get to work on clever scripts like this. As a writer myself, that’s a joy. At the festival I said, you know if it’s a good writer if you’re jealous of them, your next best thing it to direct it. So I talked to Greenwich Theatre about it and they agreed, and that’s why we’re where we are.
“The play spoke to me because of what I’m going through in my day. I’m my dad’s carer so I spend a lot of time with him. He’s ninety, and his mind has gone. Sometimes I think, what’s the point? You know, I have to give him nine tablets a day just to keep him alive…
“I can’t believe I’m saying this, it’s supposed to be a comedy!
“If it was just a comedy I may not have been drawn to it, I think, but it’s about memory and it’s about dementia, which is an issue that has affected so many more people these days.
“Apparently people today can look forward to living to one hundred and ten, which is fantastic but there’s no infrastructure to deal with that, certainly not at the moment, and there’s not enough money for it. It’s about quality of life.”
One of the challenges the old ladies face in the play is jealousy over a shared best friend, a gay man who was the lifeblood of the Half Moon Players. I asked Patrick to what extent it’s a ‘gay play’.
“People assume gay themes have been dealt with, they’re like urgh, not another coming out story or whatever, and that’s why I liked this play, because it is not about that. But it is a reminder of how tough it was, back in the day, to be gay. And I think audiences need to be reminded of that, particularly gay audiences.
“The idea that gays aren’t persecuted any more is bollocks: look at the rest of the world.”
Our conversation widened to be about what the gay play as a genre is becoming. Patrick is most excited about reviving and reclaiming gay plays of the past, “We don’t need to write 'important' gay plays any more,” he explains.
“I think there are gay plays that should be reclaimed as gay plays. Apparently, for example, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was originally conceived for four men. I think a lot of Lorca’s plays, which are about female sexuality, are actually, as Lorca was gay, about frustrated gay desire.”
After the Fringe, Patrick is hoping to stage a new production of The Boys In The Band in London this Summer. The play, which ran for over a thousand performances off-Broadway and was adapted into a feature film of the same name in 1970, revolves around a gay birthday party - a gathering which was illegal at the time.
“What’s fascinating about The Boys In The Band is it was written on the cusp of Stonewall. It’s set in New York.
“A lot of people say, Oh, why are we doing that again? but the central character in the play, Michael, says ‘If only we could learn to not hate ourselves so much.’
“That’s it. It’s the most amazing line. And of course the opposite of hating ourselves is being in love with yourselves, and so out of that… just round the corner... the riots are about to happen.
“So when I do it, I’m going to take the audience down to the street. I think it’s the most amazing piece of writing.”
The conversation turns to the art of directing and the specific challenges of directing for the Fringe. “I’ve never got over this feeling that in rehearsals you have a relationship with the actors which is almost like having an affair, and then suddenly this other person turns up, the audience, and then the actors start having an affair with the audience and you start to feel slightly rejected.
“Eventually - like I’m going back to London on Sunday, and if I do come back - the actors will know Keeping Up with the Joans better than I do. So I will say to them, can we tighten this up? and blah blah blah, and they’re say, oh no because we get a laugh there, and you kind of lose your purpose. It doesn’t become yours any more.
“If it’s a good show, that’s a good thing. If it’s not a good show, if it’s not been rehearsed properly, then it’ll be a disaster.
“This is a good show. I felt for the first time today, I thought I’m proud of this. This is going to be OK. You never know that until it goes in front of an audience. You never know that.”
Keeping Up with the Joans runs until the end of August at The Pleasance Courtyard.