It is always refreshing and encouraging to record a career first, which is precisely what happened during Jonathan Harvey’s new play Canary last night. I had never before been part of an audience encouraged to chant “homosexual” as one.
The impetus came from a Les Dawson-esque Mary Whitehouse intent on shining her purifying light on the moral degradation of same sex relationships. A cheeky lift of a fake breast is all Philip Voss would have needed to complete the look.
Whitehouse is just one of many characters in Harvey’s sweeping portrayal of gay life since the mid-20th century. That scope sounds epic, and there is a touch of Angels In America about the piece, but by focusing on a small group of characters whose lives overlap, Canary remains a tale rather than a history lesson or lecture.
Harvey’s story spans three generations, moving from when homosexuality was still illegal, through aversion therapy, AIDS and political campaigning, to now. One of the most telling sequences is set in the present day, when TV presenter Russell berates a young colleague for his lack of thought about AIDS or what previous generations have gone through to offer him the liberty he now takes for granted. At that stage of the show, you can understand his anger.
Harvey – whose previous play Beautiful Thing won him the John Whiting Award – is playful with his structure. Eras jump around, keeping the audience on their toes, and characters from one time zone slip into another as they remember the past. There is even a dose of fantasy dream sequence. The writer of cult television comedies Gimme Gimme Gimme and Beautiful People scatters laughter liberally around the action, never afraid to go for the lowbrow giggle. Never had I expected to hear Maggie Thatcher speak the phrase “I don’t like anal sex.”
The ensemble cast, directed by Hettie Macdonald, makes each character believable and engaging, which is no mean feat with all the swift changes and minor parts they each take on.
While the anarchic energy of the piece is intoxicating, what lingers is the pain: the abusive aversion therapy and its effects, the lives lived under the shadow of an unspoken but clearly known secret, the parental shame. Much of the tale portrays this pain as a thing of the past – battles have been fought and won – yet Harvey’s view of the present is not rose-tinted. The world has moved on, but the war is not won.