by Charles Dyer
directed by Tricia Thorns for Two’s Company
Southwark Playhouse – until 17 July
If you haven’t done your research, you might think that “gay plays” generally fall into two camps (no pun intended): either heartwarming, spiky but ultimately feel-good tales like Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song, Jonathan Harvey’s Beautiful Thing and Robert Madge’s glorious, current My Son’s A Queer But What Can You Do, or hard-hitting recent-history AIDS dramas like the epics Angels In America and The Inheritance, and Larry Kramer’s searing The Normal Heart, soon to be revived at the National. All the more reason then to applaud this revival of Charles Dyer’s mid-‘60s piece first seen at the RSC, which presents something quite different.
Part tragicomedy, part oddball thriller, and with a touch of melodrama, Staircase feels like something a Queer Harold Pinter might have come up with. Written and set before the decriminalisation of homosexuality in the UK, it’s about a gay couple who run a barber shop and one of whom is awaiting criminal proceedings having been caught in drag sitting on another man’s knee. Or is it? With tantalising ambiguity, Dyer suggests that all may not be as it seems with these two men, which would therefore mean that one of them -the playwright’s namesake, and played with preening panache by John Sackville- is even more of a troubled narcissist than we already imagine. It’s probably not fair to say any more than that for fear of spoilers for potential ticket buyers.
And buy a ticket you should as this is a genuine rediscovery. While the attitude that gay men are fundamentally compromised loners is (mercifully) an antiquated one, it is part of gay history, and Dyer expresses it with cracking, expressive, sometimes brutal dialogue, shot through with flashes of campy humour used as armour rather than real mirth. The sense of “otherness” and being a constant outsider that these men talk about rings very true, even as it unwittingly points up how far we’ve come. There’s also an eerie prescience when they talk about gay people having children of their own.
Tricia Thorns’s meticulous production also features a poignant, funny, strangely haunting performance from the always-superb Paul Rider as Harry, the gentle but acerbic proprietor of the tonsorial parlour (exquisitely realised in Alex Marker’s detailed, authentic set, complete with checkerboard floor, black and white headshots of bygone film stars, and hair-cuttings underfoot).
If not quite a lost classic, Staircase emerges, more than 55 years after it’s premiere, as a genuinely engaging, troubling period piece. Not sure when we’ll see it again, or indeed done as well as this, so therefore I would say hasten along.