King’s Head Theatre, Islington – until 23 November 2019
Reviewed by Antonia Hebbert
The playwright called this ‘A Pornographic Elegy with Redeeming Social Value and a Hymn to the Queer Men of San Francisco’, which along with the title is maybe all you need to know. But to justify being here and give a little more detail, here goes.
At the flamboyant height of the San Francisco gay scene of the 1980s, two men have a relationship by telephone, in which they describe in intimate physical detail exactly what they imagine doing to each other, and tell each other what to do to themselves. They talk about sexual encounters, in detail, and take each other into fantasies, both violent and playful. All good hot fun, except that AIDs has just emerged and is grimly reaping its way through the gay community. So as well as being erotic/pornographic, this 1985 play by Robert Chesley is a defiant celebration of the male body and all the exuberances of male sex and intimacy.
The actors are the very believable Tibu Fortes (Bert) and Tom Joyner (J.R.), and mostly they’re talking from their beds at each end of the performance space, with the audience crowded in on three sides. The setup is the same as for A Prayer for Wings, reviewed elsewhere, but much neater and tidier. This production also has intimacy directors (Enric Ortuno and Yarit Dor), which may be why it always feels like a play (albeit a pornographic one) rather than a peepshow.
It’s significant that J.R., who makes the first phone call, is a historian – he is preserving a moment in queer history. Times have changed, and HIV/AIDS doesn’t hold quite the same sort of dread. It’s a little like watching an old war film in a time of relative peace. But for director Ben Anderson the play still has an important message about openness. In Chesney’s words, ‘prudery kills … nobody ever died from being offended’.