Certain Young Men

Peter Gill”s Certain Young Men was first performed at the Almeida Theatre in 1999. According to Cambridge University Queer Players this is its first revival. Seemingly it did not occur to them that there might be very good reason why the play has languished for eighteen years without seeing the lights of another theatre. As I sat through this production the possible reasons became increasingly evident.It took me only a couple of minutes to Google a conveniently grouped set of reviews about the original staging that was directed by Gill. Everything then fitted into place and my worst fears were confirmed. In an article entitled Long on courage, short on drama, Charles Spencer, writing in the Telegraph, referred to the play as an “underpowered but intermittently fascinating account of modern homosexual manners.... In this play it's all bickering, self-absorption and maudlin heartbreak…there is little sense of narrative urgency or emotional involvement.... Fatally, Gill's writing lacks the revealing detail and the texture that might bring the characters to life”.

The Cambridge group of amateurs faced the almost impossible task of pulling off a successful performance.

It's possible that a single reviewer can sometimes be out on a limb, but that was not the case here. Sheridan Morley in the Spectator lamented along similar lines. He chose Four couples in search of a plot as his title and quite rightly pointed out that they never discover it. He went on to confirm Spencer’s point “that that Gill doesn't tell us enough about any of his men to make us really care what happens to them; we are given brisk background sketches, but these... duologues began as workshop exercises... and have never really graduated to full dramatic status.” Such weaknesses of character development in the script of the full two-hour play were inevitably heightened in this eighty-minute reduction The upside was being saved from more of the same for another forty minutes.

Given that the professional production did not fare well, despite some actors being credited with having made the most of poor material, the Cambridge group of amateurs faced the almost impossible task of pulling off a successful performance. However, having chosen to perform a flawed script they then decided to make yet another rod for their own backs. The play was written for an all male cast playing four pairs of gay characters. It was visually intelligible even if the substance of the dialogues was rambling. In this production that casting was set aside and in a press release filled with vain aspirations the company explains that “Our use of female actors to play male parts also gives new vision to the play – as a lens through which to examine female narratives through queer male narratives.” It continues in a similar vein but what follows is even more mind-numbing. Hence male actors playing gay characters talked to women actors playing male gay characters who talked to other women actors playing gay male characters. If this was ‘new vision’ it was totally obscured in a cloud of confusion.

If it is to be performed at all, this play needs advanced skills of direction and mature acting ability to enliven and break up the dialogue into manageable sequences that are not confined to people seated on the sofa or chairs. This group possessed neither. There were times when some of the cast in certain scenes rose above the weak, rather mumbled set of opening lines that set the tone for this production, but they were insufficient to make it an overall success.  

Reviews by Richard Beck

Brockley Jack Theatre

every seven years

★★★
Arcola Theatre

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★★★
Lion & Unicorn

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★★★★
Jermyn Street Theatre

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★★★★
The Space

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★★★
Southwark Playhouse

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★★

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The Blurb

‘What are two grown men doing together, faking all the stupidities of a straight relationship?’ Revived for the first time since its 1999 debut at The Almeida, Certain Young Men is a sensitive, inventive look at contemporary queer relationships and the ways in which they are represented, performed and perceived through the eyes of mainstream discourse. This fresh, movement-based production adopts a queer perspective, employing gender-bending and physical theatre to further the already philosophical, explorative poignancy of Peter Gill’s writing. At times heartbreaking, at times hilarious, always deeply moving – this is not one to miss.

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