Over the years Jonathan Harvey has proven his gift for comedy in sweet little plays like BEAUTIFUL THING and the terrific television series BEAUTIFUL PEOPLE. He's basically a gay Neil Simon. There are lovely sentimental moments that ring true in addition to laugh out loud comic moments. He also has a gift for light camp humor that over the years has appealed to a gay audience. In his new work, CANARY, he tries to write a serious gay epic a la Tony Kushner's ANGELS IN AMERICA. I'm afraid he has over-reached here. CANARY is neither as rich and profound nor as funny as Kushner's epic work. Harvey has moved out of his comfort zone.
CANARY tries to be an epic work spanning the past helf century of British gay history from vicious arrests, Draconian psychiatric "cures", Mary Whitehouse's Festival of Light, gay demonstrations, AIDS, to openly gay television stars like Graham Norton. Its best moments are the comic ones -- Mary Whitehouse (the always queenly Philip Voss in drag) lecturing the audience and Margaret Thatcher trying to find a euphemism for anal sex. The worst moments are the attempts at Kushner-like theatrical fantasy such as a mink-coat-clad mother flying with the spirit of her dead son (particuarly when the flying rig is awkward and very noisy). Much of the rest seems old hat to those of us who have watched gay drama over the past forty years -- AIDS death scenes, gay bashing, etc. The scene of a young man going through aversion therapy was better done in Alexi Kaye Campbell's wonderful play, THE PRIDE. In general, CANARY would benefit from cutting. Many scenes went on too long.
The focus of CANARY is the life of a closeted police offcer who rises to police chief. As a young man, he lets his lover take the rap for their sexual activity so he can survive professionaly. Twenty years later his son dies of AIDS. Another quarter of a century later he is outed by his son's best friend and tries to reconcile with the lover he betrayed forty years before. There's a bit too much coincidence in all this and not a lot of credibility. Why would the son's best friend decide to out the father a quarter of a century after the son's death?
The cast play multiple roles and the central character (the police chief and his osn's best friend) have actors as their young and older selves. Would the young cockney police officer really turn into grande dame Philip Voss? The best performances are from the younger actors, particularly Kevin Trainor as the young policeman's lover turned revolutionary and Ryan Sampson as a young show queen.
There are good moments in CANARY, but too many in which one feels one has seen it better done before. The big question is why there are now so many plays reminding us of gay history -- THE PRIDE, HOLDING THE MAN, CANARY, MAURICE. In an interview in the program, Jonathan Harvey laments that young gay people today don't know their history and don't see themselves as different. In other words, gay culture is fading out because of assimilation. Older gay writers seem compelled to remind audiences of the bad old days when gay men suffered and fought but felt a sense of difference that joined them -- when there was a gay culture and a gay community. At one moment in the play, the openly gay television personality screams to a callow youth he has picked up, "Me and my mates went through shit to let you be this apathetic!" The plays are reminders of what it meant to be gay before this post-gay (at least in enlightened areas) age. There aren't any battles to be fought in Britain. We can't forget that there are still battles to be fought in Africa, Islamic societies and much of the USA -- anywhere where fundamentalist religions are dominant.
CANARY by Jonathan Harvey. Directed by Hettie Macdonald. Hampstead Theatre. June 10, 2010.