Martin Sherman’s ‘Passing By’ has an assured niche in gay history, being one of the first plays mounted by the pioneering Gay Sweatshop, and the first that seemed to have no axe to grind. I say ‘seemed’, because the axe was there, but so subtle, warm and beguiling that it didn’t hurt one bit.

What Martin did was simply present a love affair – something more than a one-night stand but less than a lifetime partnership – between two men on its own terms, needing no more justification than the pleasure and enrichment it contained. In the world of London theatre in 1975, this was a thunderbolt. We were used to Dick Emery, John Inman and Larry Grayson on our screens; on stage the overblown and self-hating ‘Boys in the Band’. But now we could see our real selves, our lives, our tics, our emotions, albeit with a New York accent. The effect was heady.

Nearly forty years on, when gay characters are pretty much obligatory for every TV soap and series, it’s difficult to recapture that feeling. However, ‘Passing By’ stands up very well, because radicalism aside, it is a beautifully crafted, almost traditional, well-made play, shot through with warmth and emotional intelligence. Toby and Simon pick each other up in an art house cinema; Toby nervy, tidy, artistic, insecure (the Jack Lemmon part, you might say), and Simon the calmer, secure, physically and emotionally comfortable in himself. The relationship might have ended the next morning – “thank you for a nice time” – but for Simon’s decision to seek Toby out at work and batter at his defences to turn it into something more. It is clear from this moment on that the affair is going to end quite soon, because Toby is planning to move to France to paint; what matters is what they make of it in the meantime.

Sherman’s genius – not a word I use often – is to show the relationship not through sex, not through extravagant expressions of emotion, but through physical caring. In the first scene, Toby has a splinter in his foot, which Simon removes. Much of the action of the play is taken up with first one and then the other going down with hepatitis, and the relationship is played out through the half-solicitous, half-resentful roles of carer and caree when both people are exhausted much of the time through illness. As a device for stripping defences and cutting to the chase, it is very canny. Lest this seem rather heavy, I should emphasise that the play is warmly witty and each of the fast-moving scenes is honed almost like a good revue sketch, with a satisfying pay-off.

By the end of the play they are faced with choices. They can stay together – Toby give up his dreams of the Left Bank, or Simon join him in a strange city with no job prospects – or they can pursue their own callings to self-fulfilment. At the time it was written this was very much a gay dilemma – single males automatically assumed to be upwardly mobile and therefore nomadic – but nowadays, when no one has a job for life, it resonates more universally. Go with the job or go with the partner? What would you do? It’s a measure of the success of the writing and the performance that in the play this becomes a gut-wrenching dilemma. In the space of an hour we have come to know these two so well, and care about them so much.

James Cartwright (Simon) and Rik Makarem (Toby) are beautifully cast as the contrasting lovers, and play off each other as if they’ve known each other all their lives. These are the nuanced, affectionate and committed performances the script deserves, and director Andrew Keates lays bare without fuss the subtext, what is said and felt in the space between the words.

If the relationship, to use a cliché, is a journey, both emerge the richer; each has had the capacity to love tested and extended. They have had “a little lovin’, they can bank it and draw on it later”. This is symbolised by the guitar that Toby has left behind in the flat that Simon now lives in. Equally important, there are no scars. Since 90% of contemporary drama involves picking at scabs in one form or another, this positivism is quite an achievement. The message, that till-death-us-do-part monogamy is not the only game in town, might not be quite as radical as it was, but it still comes up relevant and fresh as paint.

Reviews by Peter Scott-Presland

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The Blurb

Passing By was first produced at Playwrights Horizons, New York City, in 1974, and by Gay Sweatshop at the Almost Free Theatre in 1975. This smash hit revival, originally produced by Arion Productions in association with Neil McPherson for at the Finborough Theatre, now transfers to the Tristan Bates.

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