King’s Head Theatre, Islington, London (** – maybe *)
1968 – year of revolution, political ferment and changing cultural climates. In the UK, it was the year theatre censorship was abolished and in England one year after homosexuality (between men over 21) had been decriminalised. In Nick de Jongh’s indispensable Not In Front of the Audience, Homosexuality on Stage, (1992), de Jongh marks Joe Orton down as the theatre’s `first revolutionary homosexual before the times were gay…Entertaining Mr Sloane [1964)] poses no problem or crisis [concerning homosexual desire].
Colin Spencer’s Spitting Image premiered in 1968 at Hampstead Theatre could be said to have done its own bit of taboo breaking becoming a cause celebre before transferring to the West End.
Fifty years on, this revival launching the King’s Head’s Queer season, received by the audience as though still taboo-breaking, strikes not so much a revolutionary note as making this reviewer aware of how far `gay theatre’ has moved on since the late ‘60s.
Whilst the outlines of Spencer’s anarchic radicalism are still clear enough – social attitudes to gay parenting (one partner even gives birth), hints at non-binary gendering and a sense of national conspiracy that would have done credit to Orton – in the end Spencer’s imagination simply gets the better of him.
Even Orton can look a little `old hat these days and Spencer is certainly no Orton with none of his parodic linguistic verve .
Indeed in what feels like a pale shadow of Orton, Spencer’s fertile imagination takes increasingly incredulous surreal twists and turns as Tom and Gary, his gay couple, encounter prejudiced nurses, mothers, civil servants and even a Home Secretary and PM.
I couldn’t quite be sure of the latter’s involvement since by that time I had almost lost the will to live despite exhaustive – and exhausting – work from a small cast forced into ever more demonic mode.
Needless to say, the audience seemed not to share my reservations and cheered the company to the hilt.
An important play for its time, wouldn’t it be great, though, if King’s Head could revive plays by, for example, Noel Greig which would give a better sense of what gay theatre went on to achieve.
Spitting Image runs at the King’s Head to Aug 27, 2016
Review first published in Reviewsgate, Aug 2016