Twilight Song, Park Theatre, London ★★★★

Reviewed for The Reviews Hub:

Best known for his play My Night With Reg, Kevin Elyot’s writing for the stage was dominated by a sense of yearning, and the deleterious effects of love. Completed before his death in 2014, Twilight Song illustrates, in its premiere production at the Park Theatre, an echoing of the same themes.

Elyot’s 1998 work The Day I Stood Still saw the writer jump backwards and forwards in time to expand upon the story of a sad gay man, trapped in the family home and with a self-inflicted sense of repression. Twilight Song can be seen as a refinement of this, Elyot jumping from present day Middlesex to the same room in the 1960s and back.

The time periods are a timely choice: this year sees the 50th anniversary of the 1967 Sexual Offences Act, which partially decriminalised homosexual acts between men. While the law change is never referenced in Elyot’s piece, the relationship between older men Charles (Hugh Ross) and Harry (Philip Bretherton) is clearly affected by the criminality of their affections. Ross, in particular, is affecting as the slightly effete, theatre-loving beloved uncle who yearns for the companionship of his lover, even as Harry pushes him away in favour of his wife and child, among other reasons.

In the present day, Paul Higgins’s Barry is initially played for laughs, a buttoned-up mummy’s boy who appears intimidated and entranced by Adam Garcia’s sexually confident estate agent. Here, the hesitancy and stumbling of dialogue feels underplayed here, to the point where it is unclear which is down to character and which is down to the actors themselves. But coming through is a sadness within Higgins’ portrayal that, while toying with stereotype, comes to personify the theme of people being trapped by their commitment to each other.

Both Higgins and Garcia have their present day characters lessened a little by their recasting as other characters in the 1960s scenes: Higgins as his character’s own father, Basil, Garcia as a character whose relationship to modern day is rather more ambiguous. It is Bryony Hannah that ties everything together more satisfactorily. As Barry’s mother Isabella, Hannah’s growing dissatisfaction with her marriage plays out with delicate care, balancing Elyot’s fine ear for witty dialogue with a growing despair at a life hampered by wifely duty.

And yet Hannah’s finest performance comes in the present day scenes, where (thanks to Tim Lutkin’s subdued evening lighting designs) the actress ages 50 years, stuck in the same house with her now middle-aged son and trapped by her memories and guilt over tragic events some fifty years before.

By the end, with the hesitancy and stumbling of the first scene a distant memory, director Anthony Banks elicits a series of performances that capture the sense of claustrophobia and anguish that unhappy love can bring. Such emotions help elevate this play into one that may deservedly be thought of as among Elyot’s finest works. Park Theatre’s production is a fine posthumous tribute to the playwright.