Certain Young Men, National Theatre, London ★★★

Reviewed for The Reviews Hub:

Part of the National Theatre’s Queer Theatre season of rehearsed readings, Peter Gill’s Certain Young Men is a collection of scenes, some related but many not, about the lives of four gay male couples.

Written at the end of the 1990s, some five years before the Civil Partnerships Act gave the first legal recognition to same-sex couples, Gill’s dialogue touches upon many of the same concerns that trouble the LGBT+ from time to time: what value does the concept of “gay pride” actually provide? Should gay couples emulate the long term monogamous relationship format that straight society expects, or does it have a responsibility to reject it? This work is unlikely to provide any answers, let alone any easy ones.

Perhaps the most believable of the four pairings are Jonathan Bailey and Ben Batt as Andrew and Tony, a couple struggling to decide if their relationship is worth saving. As Batt struggles with his feelings of inadequacy, of needing to change to be good enough for his partner, of hating that need, of resenting his partner for not asking him to change, the tensions in any and every relationship feel solidified. As his partner, Bailey is similarly struggling, but his role in Gill’s work seems more to rip apart the commercial, “pink pound” elements which are so easily mistaken for gay culture.

Toby Wharton and Oliver Chris cover the stereotype of older, middle-class wealthy gay men whose relationship is overshadowed by Wharton’s previous marriage and his young son. Nick Fletcher’s Robert, the oldest of the octet of characters, falls into a relationship with a troubled young rent boy (Brian Vernel). Vernel’s dry comic timing and delivery are refreshing and go some way in compensating for his character’s position as the sole working class character being depicted as a thief.

Gill’s piece was originally devised by throwing out a series of single-sentence scenario options into a rehearsal room and seeing what happens. In most of the couples, that fragmentary origin bubbles up into the stories, each scene never really feeling complete or whole. But with the fourth couple, whose tale begins and ends the production, that origin is laid bare.

Billy Howle and Lorne MacFadyen, as a couple who seem to be in the first stages of meeting, play repeated versions of scenes in different ways, with variations involving decisions, moods and shifts of the balance of power. Just as the audience feels as if they have a handle on their characters, the word “or” flings the pair into a new scenario.

It is these most theatrical, these least realistic, of scenes that become the most engaging. There is an honesty of expression in their jumbled options that are missing from the other couples’ stories.

Certain Young Men is occasionally revived on the fringe scene: a version which plays with race and gender of the actors (all while playing Gill’s white male characters) hits the Edinburgh Fringe this year. But there are plays that speak to gay life in all its varieties with more warmth, more clarity and more honesty. While Gill’s piece provides portions of each, ultimately it is a piece that points not at answers, but at the need to ask better questions.

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