Alexi Kaye Campbell’s first play, which debuted at the Royal Court three years ago and is now receiving its regional premiere in Sheffield, caused quite a fuss when it first appeared, winning Campbell a number of awards including an Olivier. It’s easy to see why. The play is ambitiously structured, travelling back and forth between 1958 and 2008 as it tells the story of three people: Oliver, Philip and Sylvia.
The 1950s Philip is a disillusioned and unfulfilled estate agent who is introduced to his wife Sylvia’s friend Oliver, a bright, engaging but deeply lonely writer. There’s an immediate tension between them, and one soon suspects that, beneath his buttoned-down, middle-class exterior, Philip is harbouring a few secrets.
Fast forward 50 years (the setting changes, but the characters don’t age), and the present-day Oliver is far more liberated and open, yet still a tortured soul. His relationship with Philip has broken down due to his addiction to anonymous sex and he’s becoming increasingly reliant on his friendship with Sylvia, an aspiring actress, who is herself in the first flush of romance with an Italian man.
It’s a brilliant set-up and the cast successfully convey with the contrasting worlds. Daniel Evans has done such a terrific job as Artistic Director of Sheffield Theatres that’s it’s all too easy to forget he made his name as a Tony-winning actor but he’s on superb form here, nailing the 1950s Oliver’s loneliness and desperation perfectly, while also demonstrating a sure comic touch in the more light-hearted contemporary scenes.
Jamie Sives dominates the 1950s scenes, skillfully and slowly descending from a distant, aloof husband into a terrifyingly tortured homophobe. He has less to do in the present-day scenes, but there’s a chameleon-like ease to his transformation into the kind, patient Philip of 2008. Claire Price is also impressive as both versions of Sylvia, but it’s Jay Simpson who really stands out in a series of cameos – most memorably as a male escort dressed as a Nazi.
Richard Wilson handles the demanding material as well as he did with his production of Polly Stenham’s That Face; this is a difficult play to stage, not least due to the all the shifts in tone and time, but Wilson deals with it in an unshowy and generous manner. His production packs an emotional punch as well: it’s no exaggeration to say that the shattering climax to the first half of the play leaves most of the audience feeling stunned.
An animated backdrop helps recreate the diverse locations – a 1950s living room, a magazine publisher’s office, a park – while James Cotterill’s design is spot on, especially in its fantastically detailed evocation of the 1950s. Although this is a play about gay characters, it is not a ‘gay play’, rather, one about the human condition, about love and about honesty. It is, above all, a play that deserves to be seen by as wide an audience as possible.