Spitting Image, King’s Head Theatre, London ★★½

Reviewed for The Reviews Hub:

First staged in 1968, Colin Spencer’s play Spitting Image came a year after the decriminalisation of homosexuality in England and Wales was notable for its depiction of a same-sex pairing living together as a couple, still a rarity in a theatre world where gay people tended to be depicted onstage as troubled deviants. Rarely, if ever, performed in the UK since, the King’s Head now revives a play which, although approaching its 50th anniversary, has much to say about issues that still dominate discussions today.

Spencer’s absurdist comedy revolves around Tom and Gary, the latter of whom has been putting on weight, and whose distended belly starts to kick. When he gives birth to a son, officials from the Home Office collude with hospital staff to not only hide the news from the public but to commit Gary for medical investigation.

One of the great tentpoles of Spencer’s play is that this gay couple, in becoming parents, has the last great differential between them and straight couples removed – so any remaining prejudice is not against them as childless hedonists, but can only be because they are gay. And it is the mundanity of the pair’s new life which provides the play’s best moments, especially as Neil Chinneck’s Tom – consistently the best performance in the whole piece – struggles to bring in enough income now that his partner has stayed at home to look after their son. Alan Grant’s Gary, the more naturally comedic role of the two, suffers slightly from Grant’s breakneck line delivery, never quite giving Spencer’s wry lines the space to breathe. But the pair together gives a sense of grounding their relationship in realism, allowing the fantastical elements of the play’s premise to be entertained.

Sadly, the rest of director Gareth Corke’s vision has the opposite effect, detracting from the absurdist allegory by overplaying the comedy until it turns into a sixth-form attempt at farce. Paul Giddings and Rachel Gleaves each play a number of supporting roles – but Giddings’ tendency to deliver each performance as a swivel-eyed caricature seems designed to steal scenes rather than enhance them. Gleaves has the opposite problem, her meatiest roles as a Home Office flunky and as Tom’s mother never quite landing as much as their role in the plot demands.

For such a revival to misfire so often and so badly is a real shame, for it’s clear that some of Spencer’s themes, of gender identity, same-sex parenting and the way that discrimination can play out in subtle, as well as obvious, ways have all a resonance with today’s world. The King’s Head has done LGBT theatre a service by exhuming this once-forgotten work and revealing it to the world: here’s hoping that the next revival does not take another 40 years, and that it can better illustrate the serious messages behind the play’s comic trappings.

Runs until 27 August. kingsheadtheatre.com

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