You’d be forgiven for taking an ex’s obsession with “bodies on the Tumulus” as something salacious; in Anthony’s case, however, the truth is far from sexy. Gay men (boys) Anthony knows are dying, turning up on the Tumulus of Hampstead Heath. Overdosing, as far as the police are concerned. Which isn’t far.
Christopher Adam’s Tumulus takes its audience on a swift, stomach-dropping swoop into noir, a genre familiar to us, but perhaps not like this. The hard-nosed, morally dubious, slightly struggling P.I., investigating deaths after a sex worker he had some affection for dies, is here a decidedly middle-class gay man, prone to party and play himself. He’s petty, vain, articulate but weak. Despite this, he dons a fedora and a trenchcoat and stumbles ever closer to a discovery.
Matt Steinberg’s production fits the Soho Theatre’s Upstairs satisfyingly: on wheels, a low table (like a kitchen island, or a mortician’s slab) and two filing cabinets stand in for Anthony’s London haunts, washed in and out around him. When Ian Hallard and Harry Lister Smith speak, as a number of other characters in matching red running shorts, their voices are twisted by microphones until they sound plural. As if some uncanny secondary always speaks alongside them.
It makes Anthony (played to discombobulated but indignant effect by Ciaran Owens) seem all the more alone. The production roves around him restlessly; the cabinet doors are shut for the sound of Anthony exiting yet another house he’s asked to leave, the table is George’s bed, then a bench on the Heath. Anthony is hemmed in by endless tasteful, mid-century furniture in gay homes he’s too fucked up for.
Tumulus’ compassionate and unsparing eye for what the cycles of weekend-long sex parties with drugs like GHB, GBL mephedrone and meth does to men like Anthony is a tribute to the work done by Outside Edge Theatre Company, which focuses on substance misuse, here co-producing with Paul Casey Productions. Besides references to an Excel spreadsheet kept by one character to track drug intake of guests and to Uber, the play doesn’t feel time-specific. This problem in particular has persisted, and the affluent, homogenous whiteness of Tumulus shows that no gay circles are exempt. You can be Curator of Ephemera at the British Library, like Anthony; it makes no difference.
George (Lister Smith) is the only character not middle-class, the first to die, and Anthony uncovers his poverty and the instability of his life only once he’s dead. Everything he learns is unsettling, pointing a finger as it does back to himself, or someone nearly identical to him. Adam’s sensitive feel for the sometimes youth-hungry, exploitative desire of older gay men is softly recriminating without being unsympathetic. Anthony tells us, repeatedly, that he is “not yet thirty-three”, while the men he sleeps with are twenty, eighteen. As the dead George, Lister Smith folds himself up, sitting with his legs under and held to him, like Peter Pan, who he might as well be.
The play brings this pattern to our attention again and again. Though the story is relatively simple, we’re gripped: there are giggles at Anthony’s observations of the caprices of the shallow men he associates with (“They greet me like a houseplant they have no pot for”) as well as little gasps, at points. Adam’s layering is dense – Tumulus runs at a brisk hour – but efficient.
Most hauntingly, Anthony and the men he has sex with each have a sound. It’s a sound only they can hear, and chemsex makes the sound stop. Anthony’s is an incessant ticking, while someone else hears nails on a chalkboard; another hears something like a storm. It’s not made clear to us if this is one of the facts of life as a gay man, a persistent threat of violence underlying everything which has to be ignored to get on, or what. Tumulus ends before anything about this is made too explicit, but its other cards in its hand are laid out, calmly. Pointedly.
Tumulus is on at Soho Theatre till 4th May. More info here.