Gently Down the Stream
Life for gay men and women in the western world has changed beyond recognition in the relatively recent past. It wasn't until 1967 that homosexuality was decriminalised in this country. "Gay men are starting to live lives that were unheard of several generations back," said Oliver and Tony-award nominated playwright Martin Sherman whose new play 'Gently Down the Stream' is running at Park Theatre. "If you're young, it's possible to believe it was ever thus." Directed by Sean Mathias to mark Sherman's 80th birthday, this three-hander explores some of the huge social and political changes in gay lives through a tender inter-generational love story. It is a powerful and timely reminder that the freedoms of contemporary gay life were not "ever thus".
Jonathon Hyde plays Beau, an ageing retired American pianist (he's in his early 60s when we first meet him) living in London and seeking companionship. He meets Rufus (Ben Allen), a young lawyer with an old soul and a romantic penchant for the past. As we're conducted gently down the stream of Beau's life, Sherman's writing intelligently explores many of the struggles which sit at the heart of what it is to be human: ageing, loss, love, regret, change and acceptance. This may be a 'gay' story but its themes are universal.
In a flawless southern American accent, Hyde beautifully captures the torn loneliness of an ageing single gay man in a performance which is moving and unsentimental. It's special to see an actor of his stature and experience performing in the intimate space of the Park Theatre. His set-piece speeches, almost Shakespearean soliloquys, are controlled and deeply affecting. There's a dramatic simplicity to the storytelling. Gentle without being slow. Emotionally powerful without being mawkish. Funny without detracting from the painful struggles which have mapped his life: an anecdote about "butchering Euripides" whilst touring Greece with an ex-lover and a Canadian amateur dramatic group is charming and delivered with nostalgic affection.
Ben Allen excels as the younger lover Rufus, a counterpoint to Beau's age and experience which allows Sherman to tease out just how radically gay life has changed in a few generations. Rufus feels entitled to love and sex in a way which Beau finds disarming. It is refreshing to see a representation of a young gay man shunning a world of drugs, parties and app hook-ups. Whilst his understanding of Beau's history is romanticised and misguided, his yearning for a less complicated past is convincing: his desire for grounding domesticity entirely understandable. Their relationship is so much more than the union of old soul and 'daddy' figure.
As a journal of gay history, the play succeeds in recognising and celebrating the activism and sacrifices of the men and women who fought for change, taking us from decriminalisation to marriage equality. Harry Lawtey's late entrance into the piece may disrupt the central relationship but it ultimately enriches it, focusing on the value and importance of friendship and support. Telling and listening to stories will always be the most important way we learn about ourselves. Through stories we construct our identities, understand our histories and connect with those who came before us. Alongside other recent work, such as Matthew Lopez's 'The Inheritance', through 'Gently Down the Stream' we can know and appreciate the stories of previous generations of gay men. Universal and gently powerful.
'Gently Down The Stream' is playing at Park Theatre in Finsbury Park until 16 March 2019.