Originally performed in November 1982 at the Bush Theatre, Coming Clean was acclaimed writer Kevin Elyot’s first professionally produced play, winning him the inaugural Samuel Beckett Award for innovation. Indeed, Elyot infuses into the text a maturity that was hither to not present in queer theatre: written and set before the AIDS crisis and the ensuing societal anxiety it caused, the plays depicts a homosexual relationship that defied the usual representation, perhaps commenting more on the nature of monogamy itself than on queerness. It is a delight, then, that 38 years later, Adam Spreadbury-Maher reignites this discussion, delivering a production of Coming Clean that offers the same adult look at homosexual relationships and expanding effortlessly off Elyot’s original work.
Its London, 1982, and Tony (Lee Knight), a small-time writer, and Greg (Stanton Plummer-Cambridge), his more successful partner of five years, have a seemingly perfect arrangement: they are fully committed to each other emotionally, but are each allowed to have one-off sexual rendezvouses on the side (… as long as they are a one-off). Often joined by their flamboyant, sexually active neighbour William (Elliott Hadley), the pair seem happy in their ways… until young Robert (Jonah Rzeskiewicz), an aspiring actor who works as a cleaner to pay the bills, enters their apartment. Soon their system breaks down, and the two are left questioning if their relationship is tenable.
Central to the play is the exploration of the trust we place in others: in Tony and Greg’s case, the trust that both will commit to their idiosyncratic, quasi-monogamous type of relationship; that their respective one-night sexual trysts won’t evolve in elongated emotional affairs. It’s a trust that seems almost oxymoronic and alien from the outside looking in (trusting your partner to cheat but not have an affair?), but the playwright and director frame it in such a manner that it is universally relatable. Queer or straight, every couple has had a crisis of confidence in their partner, unsure if their relationship is sustainable – we’ve all been a Tony, wondering if our Greg is being faithful. Indeed, Spreadbury-Maher emphasises the moments that every couple can identify: the stilted pauses as difficult conversations are danced around, the process of navigating the ups and down of long-term libido, or the quiet moments when the two just exist together. It’s an intimate portrayal of the complexity of trust, aided massively by Amanda Mascarenhas’ fantastic set design of a lived-in flat in Kentish Town.
Moreover, juxtaposing the abuse of emotional trust between Tony and Greg, their promiscuous friend William reveals a different kind of abuse. Despite initially appearing to only offer comic relief through a litany of camp stereotypes (“I love men in construction helmets… as long as they don’t wear them in bed!”), the character transforms after he is molested by some “rough trade”. Indeed, the trust William put in this possible sexual partner is abused when his homophobic motivations are revealed, and William is handcuffed, beaten and has his home wrecked. This heart-breaking scene is one of the most powerful in the play and is carried adeptly by Elliot Hadley’s stand-out performance of William.
This isn’t to say the production is perfect: the text relies heavily on the well-worn tropes of domestic drama (the partner walking in on another mid-cheating; the young, attractive cleaner causing strife in an already-strained relationship etc.) and the transition of some relationships feel uneven. However, Coming Clean is nevertheless a triumph in delivering Elyot’s quick wit and emotional depth, and although the very idea of trust is debated, it is reassuring to know this production at least is in a safe pair of hands.
Coming Clean is playing Trafalgar Studios 2 until 1 February. For more information and tickets, visit the Trafalgar Studios website.