On one level, Bill Rosenfield’s 46 Beacon is a play about a middle-aged actor, Robert, taking sexual advantage of a 16-year-old theatre assistant, Alan, after getting him drunk. And on another level, it’s not. On another level, to define it as such would be overly critical and densely simplistic. Because 46 Beacon is a funny, semi-autobiographical new two-hander that explores relationships, life decisions and what it means to identify as a gay man in 1970.
The turbulent sixties are giving way to the hedonistic seventies, we’re told by Robert (Jay Taylor) in the first of several fourth wall-breaking speeches. The Stonewall riots and the death of Judy Garland are both poignant precursors here, preserving 46 Beacon in a specific socio-political context. We’re told that gay rights are improving and it’s an exciting time for the community, yet public displays of affection between gay couples are still a no-go and coded questions – such as asking which bars your subject of interest frequents – are the safest way of deciphering who shares your sexual preferences. Look at how far we’ve come today, that we can sit in a West End theatre enjoying a play about a gay relationship where the issues that concern us are not the fact that both halves of the relationship are male.
Robert is self-assured in his identity, confident in his sex appeal and toughened by the experience of being shunned by his parents and former church community because of his ‘sinful’ sexuality. Taylor adds his own flair to this, painting Robert as sharp and brusque, a cocky, well-spoken actor. Aware of his role as the lead storyteller, Robert calls “the boy” – Alan – onto the stage to help him tell their tale. Oliver Coopersmith’s Alan is the ideal contrast to Taylor’s Robert; he’s the receptive follower, curious and questioning, polite and shy. This power imbalance between the pair breathes a plausibility over what happens between them.
You can’t escape the fact that 46 Beacon depicts a self-aware man hurrying a teenager into becoming sexually active and acknowledging the fact he’s gay. Through a bout of military-style questioning, in which Robert forces Alan to admit he ultimately felt nothing for his holiday girlfriend, Alan is pressured by his older, more worldly companion to accept he’s gay “with a capital G” despite his whines that he just wants to be like everyone else. The intimate scenes that follow are undeniably passionate, yet Alan’s naivety coupled with the fact he’s taken advantage of on his first time is uncomfortable to witness. The subsequent blow – being told sex is just sex, after all – Alan experiences, is a shattering realisation that many people, not just gay men, can relate to.
There’s a sexual undercurrent to much of what Robert says to Alan. It’s witty, clever writing from Rosenfield, and we laugh at his innuendos and smirk along with Robert, in spite of the immorality of the situation. As Alan exposes his young age, pronouncing that gin and tonic tastes like bitter 7Up and looking completely puzzled when Robert offers to give him a foot massage, director Alexander Lass makes it all feel almost familiar and comfortable, despite the risqué context.
At each new hurdle the duo jump, humour balances out the seriousness of the situation. And, as they grow more comfortable together, Rosenfield writes the pair light-hearted digs to make at one another, rebalancing some of the power Alan previously loses to Robert. For example, Alan claims Robert sounds like “a suicide helpline” and Robert describes Alan as a “sweet boy” who would be “intolerable” if he were any older, due to the sheer amount of questions he asks. Rosenfield describes these interactions as moments where the actors connect with one another and the audience simultaneously. So they are, and despite their flaws, these are essentially two likeable characters.
46 Beacon is also play about relationships and life decisions, though. While the pinnacle moment involves Robert taking something from Alan, rendering the night much more significant in Alan’s life, the evening is ultimately a journey and an opening-up for both characters. As if in therapy with one another, the two explore their feelings. Robert divulges some painful regrets as “the mediocre actor who missed his chance”, and Alan confesses to his loneliness, resulting from not being accepted in the clique at school. This particular scene is redeeming of Robert, who uses his experience for good to advise Alan that the world is changing in their favour and that they’re “exotic and fabulous”. There’s something truly heartwarming in Robert reassuring Alan that he’s about to find himself part of a much more exciting party.
There’s a sense in the final scene that neither man looks back on their encounter with regret, and that both hold onto their memories of it fondly. It was a profound moment in Alan’s life, yet it’s Robert we meet years later, still reflecting back on that night at 46 Beacon.
46 Beacon is at Trafalgar Studios until April 29th. For more details, click here.