After several years of obsessive theatregoing, I have seen my fair share of modern classics being born. There is no thrill like watching a preview of a great new play and seeing the possibilities before anyone else, knowing this secret before it’s revealed to the world. Then, there are the ones that got away: Alexi Kaye Campbell’s The Pride premiered at the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs in November 2008, and although my friends were raving about it, I never managed to see that production. It doesn’t help that the month’s run at the 80 seats theatre sold out very quickly, especially after reviews were out. Alexi Kaye Campbell went to win The Critics’ Circle Prize for Most Promising Playwright, the play had productions off broaddway and elsewhere in the world before coming back to Sheffield, where I managed to catch up with it for the first time. What a revelation that was.
For all its intricate structure (two timelines criss-crossing) and its bigger theme (human rights we take for granted, all the things we have yet to achieve), The Pride is painfully and joyfully about people. It has a skin on skin quality, the characters – all fully fledged and gloriously flawed – have desires and make choices to break your heart. Even the interval is at its perfect place: the last scene of the first half threatens to shatter the world in half. How do you follow that?
I have hardly mentioned it’s a play about gay people. I am not sure that it is. After all, gay rights are human rights. But it’s also about the men and women who, for the longest time, were made to believe their most intimate true feelings needed to be cauterised, cut out. In that sense, taking pride in who you are takes a whole new meaning.
Jamie Lloyd – who directed the first production at the Royal Court – comes back with a different cast but the same creative team. I can’t say which creative ideas survived from five years ago, but it hardly matters. The production has a fluent, even playful, quality (the costume changes are a joy in themselves) that brings story and characters into focus.
Hayley Atwell’s Sylvia, trapped and wise, balances all aspects of the character beautifully. Her inner conflict is perfectly layered with regret and hope. Mathew Horne plays three different characters with playful abandon.
But the story belongs to Oliver and Philip: Al Weaver as Oliver slides effortlessly from 1958 to 2008 and back, gloriously contrasting the two timelines but always carrying an aftertaste, a ghost. His 1958 Oliver is heartbreaking and still, shedding a new skin before your eyes. His 2008 incarnation is teasing, lost, almost dangerous. Al Weaver is probably the least known of the four actors in the cast and it’s a joy to see him take centre stage. Harry Hadden-Paton’s Philip, articulate if heartbroken in 2008, is haunted and eviscerated in 1958. His natural charm contrasts strongly with his inner torment, it’s easy to see how he could have everything only if he wasn’t crashed by society and his inability to “be brave”.
The play finishes in a hopeful if bittersweet note: betrayal hovers at the background, but things change, battles are won. Even if it’s for a day. A sunny summer day, at the park, in the middle of London Pride.
You can read revstan’s thoughts here, and this is her third production of the play.