Having picked up a number of awards during its run in London, Alexi Kaye Campbell’s play is part of a concerted attempt by theatre owners Ambassador Theatre Group to break the stranglehold of big-budget extravaganzas and feel-good musicals in theatres like theirs, reintroducing ‘proper’ drama alongside the big shows.
The Pride might not have pulled crowds like, say, The Lion King but an intense drama like this was never going to. Encouragingly (and partly as a result of intensive marketing in the gay community), its opening night boasted a sizeable audience that was obviously impressed and moved by a challenging play that cleverly juxtaposes scenes from a gay triangle in the repressive 50s with others from the more liberated present.
It opens in the 50s and, for a while, it would be easy enough to imagine we’re watching a hitherto-unseen Terence Rattigan play. Philip (Harry Hadden-Paton) is a moody estate agent married to Sylvia (Hayley Atwell) but guiltily attracted to Oliver (Al Weaver), a writer of children’s books whose latest is being illustrated by his wife.
Startlingly, we then find ourselves confronted in the present day by a character dressed in full Nazi regalia. He, it turns out, is simply a rent-boy and the latest in a series of anonymous sex partners compulsively indulged in by the modern Oliver, a freelance journalist whose relationship with boyfriend Philip is on the rocks. He constantly turns to his friend Sylvia, a thoroughly modern woman, for support but even she is starting to tire of his drama queen antics and the profoundly damaged attitudes to sex they hide.
So far, so Terence Rattigan meets Will And Grace. But, although there are laughs to be had, usually provided by Mathew Horne as one of the anonymous sex partners or as a wide-boy tabloid editor, The Pride has more going for it than that. The actors are all excellent as the play moves, convincingly and compassionately, through sexual tension masked by politeness via grief, guilt and terror to desperation, wounded pride and some sort of reconciliation.
We may all pat ourselves on the back for our liberal attitude to gay sexuality these days but, it asks, does promiscuity and gay pride marches really represent that much of a quantum leap forward for gay men from the repression and criminalization of 60 years ago?
It’s a powerful and brave but painful piece that uses its head and its heart as much as its characters use other parts of their bodies. It deserves an audience and ATG deserve congratulations for staging it.
By Kevin Bourke
The Pride is at Manchester Opera House until January 24, 2014. For tickets click here http://www.atgtickets.com/shows/the-pride/opera-house-manchester/