My friend told me the other day that she believes we are the last generation who will think monogamy is the norm. The young’uns are all about polyamory now, with none of our old-fashioned possessiveness. Is she right? Are we terribly limited and quaint with our sexual jealousy? Can you ever really have your cake and fuck it (and the rest of the bakery)?
I’m potentially at risk of stretching the analogy here, but my point is that the central question of Kevin Elyot’s Coming Clean is as current now as it was 35 years ago, in Adam Spreadbury-Maher’s new production kicking off the King’s Head Queer festival.
Greg (Jason Nwoga) and Tony (Lee Knight) have a strong, five-year relationship built on love and a shared appreciation of a good maudlin adagio, but they want to shag other people, and so they do… happily ever after? But what no one ever warns you about free love is that though it comes with potentially complex feelings, it is the admin that is the real bitch.
The arrival of their new cleaner Robert (Tom Lambert), an ingenious ’80s Adonis, has them both wishing that they’d perhaps spent more time establishing the ground rules of their open relationship, a handy excel of hard lines. Is sex in the shared flat okay? With mutual acquaintances? And what about love?
Elyot’s 1982 tableau of queer domesticity has aged surprisingly well and it is to Spreadbury-Maher’s credit that he has dared to let the material carry this nicely made little drama without any contrived updating. The play doesn’t need the actualisation of hook-up culture to reinforce its constant presence; Tony and his friend William (an utterly scene stealing Elliot Hadley) might not yet be able to swipe right, but they already have enough discos and cruising escapades to keep them in a state of constant temptation.
Knight and Nwoga create a believable romance without explicit declaration, a cosiness that is reliant on their don’t ask-don’t tell arrangement of infidelity. An interesting power dynamic emerges in Tony’s financial reliance on Greg, the imbalance between the two extended to their literary prowess and the implication that Tony and William’s promiscuity is somehow immature in comparison to the highbrow, libertarian world of Professor Greg.
Coming Clean benefits from a smooth narrative arc and tidy exploration of themes, so neatly presented that they are practically gift-wrapped. The production wavers between good and a little bit special on the strength of the performances. Nwoga and Knight both demonstrate moments of excellent subtlety, where so much is communicated by a glare or the angry unwrapping of a parental food parcel, but it is not consistent.
Lambert looks utterly perfect as the Ken-doll dream boy, but at times he strongly brings to mind the synth robots from Channel Four’s Humans. It isn’t clear if his stilted lack of emotion is faulty delivery or a purposeful emphasis of Robert’s manipulative side.
In contrast, Elliot Hadley does something quite remarkable with William, managing to jump between crude, camp comedy and being genuine heart-wrenching, sometimes in the same speech. A role that could very easily have been diminished to a moralistic device, is sculpted by Hadley into someone fully rounded. A remarkable, Pygmalion feat to create a spin-off-worthy character out of such rude clay, although even he can’t work miracles with his secondary role of walk-on German leather-daddy Jurgen.
2017 marks the 50th anniversary of the de-criminalisation of homosexuality in Britain, and whilst a play like Coming Clean may struggle against a fashion for more edgy fair, its revival feels timely. A story entirely rooted in gay, male culture but with a simple question as contemporary as it is intersectional: how can two people who love each other navigate the choppy waters of sexual desire and emotional loyalty?
The production wears its issue lightly, but it’s a very enjoyable couple of hours nonetheless. Take your partner and lovers – but maybe check the Excel ground-rules as to whether or not you can invite them both to the same performance…
Coming Clean is at the King’s Head Theatre until August 26th. For more detail, click here.