All of life can be found in a gay bar. At least, that’s the message of Peter Scott-Presland’s enjoyably exuberant, if over-long, musical, (very) loosely based on Arthur Schnitzler’s tale of sexual morals, Reigen, with a score provided by long-time collaborator David Harrod.
The show opens at the end of the night in gay bar La Ronde, with the harshness of the lights going up precipitating tears, arguments and a cattle-market frenzy of coupling-off that will be blearily familiar to anyone who’s found themselves at GAY at 2am.
Among the night-time denizens of La Ronde is The Wolf; leather-clad, with a practised smile and a hips-first strut, he’s set his sights on a one-nighter with bewildered new boy, The Kid. Hovering on the outskirts of the scene is The Soldier, a man on permanent retreat from his age (mid-forties) who loves sex – particularly when it involves role-plays about brothers sharing a tent – but who shrinks away from intimacy. Meanwhile, The Fag consoles The Dyke over a recent break-up and The Wife and The Husband talk patronisingly about how much fun it all is here. As these characters’ separate stories collide in all-singing fashion, all kinds of bed-hopping shenanigans ensue.
This may sound awful. But what saves La Ronde, at least for the most part, from coming across as crass or tawdry is the old-fashioned charm of its bawdiness. It may take place in the 1990s but its roots go further back, to naughty postcards sold on Blackpool Pier and cabaret performed in dingy backrooms in Soho. This legacy is there in the cartoonish stand-up bed which is wheeled on stage for the frequent bouts of bonking – it’s the x-rated equivalent of the backdrop boards you might have stuck your face through at the seaside.
In this regard, the Rosemary Branch Theatre, a small space perched above a pub, is the perfect venue. This isn’t a musical that draws its power from distance and spectacle; it needs to see its audience’s faces. A vein of gentle irony runs throughout the show, sending up the stereotypes on stage but doing so with affection. It’s a love letter to a simpler time, complete with knowing winks to the crowd and a drag act halfway through.
Fiona Byrne, who looks uncannily like Catherine Tate channeling Bridget Jones as The Wife, is probably the strongest vocalist among the cast but she tends to drown out anyone else she’s paired with. In the non-singing bits, however, she and Joe Schefer, who plays The Husband as if he has wandered out of the final scene of Brief Encounter, are enjoyably neurotic – like a couple from a 1970s sitcom. And it’s impossible not to warm to Simon Chilvers, doe-eyed and Bambi-like as The Kid.
La Ronde’s mockery only ever becomes uncomfortable during ‘We Don’t Serve Fish’, spitefully sung at The Dyke by Connie Linctus, the drag queen. Accompanied by laughter from everyone else on stage, it’s a one-joke number that drags on so relentlessly that it crosses over from being ridiculous to unpleasant. In general, length is a problem with La Ronde. In part this is because the slavishly episodic nature of the story doesn’t allow for much narrative momentum to build; largely, though, it’s due to the excesses of the music.
The production moves with skill between bluesy tunes and show-stoppers belted out to the back of the theatre. However, apart from the tightly constructed and deeply funny hymn to internet cruising, ‘Tippety Tap’ (performed with toe-curling perfection by JJ Criss and Randy Smartnick as The Soldier and The Fag), many of the songs are simply too long. It’s hard to fully appreciate Scott-Presland’s witty lyrics when you’ve begun to fidget in your seat.
Nevertheless, in spite of these shortcomings – in fact, in some ways because of them – La Ronde sort of succeeds. Its dialogue is sometimes clunky (at one point, The Wolf helpfully reminds the Kid that, aged 17, he is below the age of consent in John Major’s Britain) but its punchy, knockabout humour, its sheer sense of fun, is infectious. And its central message, that love is possible, even in a gay bar, is enough to soften the heart of the most hardened theatregoer.