This remarkably moving production focuses on the intolerant anti-homosexual rants of a Southern Baptist preacher and his power over his flock. Stephen Parker makes him a towering, lowering figure lusting for control of his young charges and “taking it to the Lord” to justify each extreme proclamation. The Preacher would probably be proud to be the rock on which the young men’s development and hopes crash. Parker plays him with subtlety and shows his own frailty when confronted by the trailer-trash mother who is the only person to physically touch him in the play. His shocked retreat show us an underlying sexual repression which may explain some of his attitude. He later shows us that he does actually have faith in the moving final scene. Parker succeeded in persuading me that his Preacher was not simply bigoted, but misguided.
Mark (Jason Kirk) confronts his community’s acceptance of the Preacher’s views with wicked asides. It is a clever conceit of the play that he even dismisses the Preacher in mid-rant as he has heard it all before. Mark acts as narrator for most of the show. With a disarming smile and a few one-liners from the beginning he has the audience in thrall. We share as he struggles in his fight not to conform without belief and the pressure to escape being the outsider. Kirk shows us the awakening of desire along with the rational demand to understand in an effortless growth from 12 to late teens. It is a delightfully nuanced performance.
Daniel Klemens as TJ shows us the weakness of conformity as he denies his feelings and uses the rhetoric of the church to justify it. The supreme confidence in this belief which Klemens presents allows us to understand rather than condemn him. He also reveals another side to his performance (and a stunning body) as the Stripper. It cannot be coincidence that it is written for one actor to play both these parts. He gives us an insight into his torment in one role and the Stripper’s sexual arrogance tempting Andrew away from his safe, stifled dedication. Andrew is played by Hugh O’Donnell with a gentle innocent start through to a crisis of faith. O’Donnell slowly reveals his character’s torment to devastating effect. As he stands to the side of the bar, we see him grow in confidence and action, only for this to be demolished when he returns home. Very pleasing, understated work.
James Phoon as Benny/Iona offers a gem of a performance. Benny is the only boy who allows his gay side full freedom and every twitch and pose convinces us to delight at his honesty. He seems not to understand when Mark criticises him for retreating into his drag personae, but he widens the topical scope by listing a variety of those repressed which we should begin to tolerate – even Republicans. Each of his drag numbers are sinuous and slinky, linking the Baptist isolation to the hedonistic gay clubs. Initially shy, not wanting to shock us with his story, Phoon seduces us into loving him despite it – or because of it. A very powerful performance.
Janet Prince plays all three mothers. (TJ’s is dead). With a swish of her hair and a change to her energy, she instantly differentiates one from the other. You will be hard pressed to find more expressive use of chewing gum. Her confusion and shock at the trail of ants into her son’s bedroom is a precious jewel delivering hilarity with heartbreak – for her and for the audience who laugh despite their apprehension.
In contrast to the church scenes, we visit a gay club and two regulars who have just met. Peanut (Don Cotter) relishes his aging queen’s reminiscences of encounters with young clubgoers whilst warning his companion against them. He shows just enough outrageous hand flapping to endear us, and builds to a heart wrenching revelation to Andrew as he begs him not to waste his life to become similarly frustrated and lost. His gulp of sadness as he leaves is devastating.
Julie Ross is initially, hilariously reluctant to reveal why Odette has ended up there. After much self-deprecating banter with Peanut, we learn the reasons for her alcoholism leading her to haunt the gay bar. They both give contrast and relief to the church scenes, although they still hark back to their own involvement with the Baptists, and their stories tie into the main story beautifully towards the end. Perfect timing from them both laying down the laugh lines.
The last of the performers, but intrinsic to the momentum of the show is Simon David as organist and cabaret pianist. His immaculate playing threads through the whole evening, tying together each element. He is not just a musician, but creates different characters through use of expression and a hat. His bar pianist is a delight as he tunes in and out of the bar conversation. Few words, delicate playing, a lovely singing voice and a key to the movement of the show.
Gene David Kirk directs with a delicate touch. He allows the action to flow across the set and through each story. Everyone is involved with intricate detail – as the boys and Mother sit listening to the sermon there is a brilliant moment when Mother slaps Benny’s hand to stop him admiring his manicure. We readily accept many monologues where characters explain their predicament and actions and the rhythm of the scenes moving into each other or over each other is superbly well managed. This production is surprisingly funny for a play with such sad themes. He succeeds in making us laugh then stop short as we realise how inappropriate that is, as more is revealed. The cast maintain credible accents throughout and their singing is adorable.
David Shields has constructed another brilliant set which presents the essentials for each setting whilst leaving room for the actors to work effectively. Lighting by Chris Withers effectively compliments each scene and leads us around the stage. This is the most artistically satisfying production I have seen at Above the Stag. Each element is comic, thought provoking or moving and the whole leads to a remarkable evening of theatre. Through comedy and tragedy, with a wider scope than purely sexual discrimination, it is a provocative affirmation of life and hope. Mark asserts “The message is love not hate” although he may not have convinced himself by the end. It fully justified the standing ovation.