I’ve never bought into the distinction between ‘amateur’ and ‘professional’, at least on the London Fringe. Performers are lucky if they can barely cover expenses anyway; while many in the best so-called ‘amateur’ companies have had ‘professional’ training. The only difference, it seems to me, is in levels of pretension.
Take Tower Theatre, for example, one of the best and longest-established, I first saw them in 1965, ‘amateur’ companies. Inevitably in this kind of set-up standards will vary, especially at the rate the Tower churns ‘em out (17 shows in the pipeline!) in order to give everyone something to do. However, they excel in small-cast productions of adventurous plays where the most talented performers get a chance to stretch themselves. Their recent ‘Endgame’ was outstanding.
‘The Pride’ is certainly adventurous. Campbell cleverly interweaves two stories separated by fifty years, each featuring Sylvia, Oliver and Phillip though as different characters in each. In 1958, Philip is an estate agent married to Sylvia, who is illustrating Oliver’s children’s book. Philip and Oliver are instantly attracted, which leads to a brief fling which Oliver would take further, but for Philip’s self-denying repression. Philip seeks aversion therapy to cure his homosexuality. Sylvia, caught in a life of lies not of her own making, leaves.
In 2008 Oliver is a sex addict. Philip, his more stable and monogamous partner, can’t cope with this, and leaves him. Oliver, who really loves him but suffers from a kind of split personality, cries on the shoulder of his best mate, Sylvia, who is sucked into his neediness until she too rebels.
The play is fascinating in that it points out both the differences and similarities between the two eras. Grinder may have replaced towpaths and toilets, but self-oppression is alive and well, in that Oliver’s sexual obsession is just as much a product of feelings of worthlessness as Philip’s refusal to face up to who he is. The role of women has its parallels too: Sylvia the exploited wife becomes Sylvia the girlfriend, exploited in a different way, until she strikes for independence.
Campbell’s writing stylistically mirrors the two eras. The 1958 sections are written in a wordier, stiffer style which might have come out of a lesser Terence Rattigan play; they combine articulacy with emotional reticence; the 2008 parts are altogether freer, both in the dialogue and the ability to voice feelings. Clearly written by someone of great talent, ‘The Pride’ nevertheless displays some of the weaknesses of a first play. There are loose ends; what happens to 1958 Philip after his ‘therapy’ is unclear; 2008 Oliver’s resolution of his conflicts is altogether too easy, in a feelgood ending which isn’t entirely earned. I would have liked to see some kind of equivalent positive psychotherapy to balance and parallel the earlier, appalling shrink.
The production, and particularly the performance of Oliver, suffers from a little stiffness which may disappear during the run. The two Olivers need sharper differentiation physically and vocally. Karima Chellig as the two Sylvias achieves this effortlessly, and is very moving, in the 1950s scenes in particular. Equally outstanding is Michael Bettell in a series of cameos to which he brings wit, energy and sharp delineation. I will not easily forget his chilling aversion therapist, with his graphic (and historically accurate) descriptions of what the chemical castration actually consists of.
This kind of powerful affirmative theatre could almost have been produced by Gay Sweatshop in the mid-1970s. It’s good to see that Gay Theatre, which has been in something of a crisis, still has a role; only now it can be mounted by, and directed towards, anyone.