“What is the point of this stupid, painful life if not to be honest? If not to stand up for what you are in the core of your being?”
In a bolder step than one might have expected, Jamie Lloyd’s Trafalgar Studios residency has revived Alexi Kaye Campbell’s The Pride, stepping it up from the Royal Court to the West End to provide a welcome dose of thoughtful drama that should appeal to all. In 1958, closeted estate agent Philip is irresistibly drawn to Oliver, a colleague of his wife Sylvia; in 2008, Philip has just left Oliver due to his addiction to anonymous sex and best friend Sylvia is left to pick up the pieces. Kaye Campbell expertly weaves the two timelines together to explore how much and how little things have changed – attitudes towards homosexuality may have liberalised some but it hasn’t provided an instant passport to happiness, relationships are still as messy and complex as they ever were.
It’s a play I have loved for a long time now and so it is hard for me to be objective about it. The earlier sequences are reminiscent of Rattigan at his best, every line weighted with repressed emotion as the men surrender to their illicit (and illegal) attraction. And the modern day story speaks of the struggles of identity in today’s hyper-sexualised culture, at a Pride festival where the only real battle being fought is to get to the front of a long bar queue and where the main threat to happiness appears to be Grindr. In both worlds too, the presence of Sylvia is infinitely moving – in the 50s she’s just as trapped by society’s rules as her gay husband and as the contemporary best friend, she has to fight just as hard to live her own emotional life due to Oliver’s clingy nature.
Al Weaver is excellent as both Olivers, subtly suggesting that the emotional damage inflicted upon him in the past has repercussions in the modern day with an easily bruised but appealing sensitivity; Harry Hadden-Paton is achingly moving as the troubled Philips, desperate to be loved simply; and as the pair of Sylvias, Hayley Atwell is sensational, generating worlds of empathy with her sparking personalities. Throw in Mat Horne’s amusing set of cameos from a Nazi-dressed rent boy to a wideboy news editor, and it is all excellently put together, Jamie Lloyd’s obvious affection for the piece evident throughout. Soutra Gilmour’s design of a giant gilded mirror is affected though the simple staging does seem to miss the ‘Trafalgar Transformed’ brief.
Speaking to friends about the play, I was intrigued to hear them dismiss it as not particularly significant to them due to it being a ‘gay play’ – particularly ironic as I’d recently sat with one of them through Fences and that wasn’t declared irrelevant due to its African-American focus… To pigeon-hole it so seems reductive, the specific may pertain more to the lives of gay men but there’s no sexuality-based stranglehold on loneliness or emotional repression.