We meet Beau (Jonathan Hyde) in his London flat; a carefully self-contained shrine to the music and books which have formed his long life. It is somehow simultaneously a reflection of the objects by which he would define himself and yet somehow detached. There’s nothing really personal here. However, we also first encounter Beau at a moment of flux, in the aftermath of what he believes to be a one night stand with Rufus (Ben Allen), a young lawyer caught in the throes of bipolar, sending him swinging uncontrollably from delighted obsession with Beau’s tales of the past to wrenching paranoia and depression.
It’s these anecdotes of friends and lovers that Beau has known and lost that really form the backbone of Gently Down The Stream (written by Martin Sherman and directed by Sean Mathias), offering a sort of second thread running alongside the development of Beau and Rufus’ life together. Slowly, as the pieces of his past fall into place, Beau evolves. As a gay man, who, at the time of the play, is in his sixties and seventies, his early life looked much different. The many traumas and moments of grief that he has been forced to endure, leave such a deep mark on his present that any effort to confront them feels almost superhuman. In this role, Hyde is incredible. He lends it a delicacy and a peace of sorts that one might not first associate with a man recounting decades of loss and alienation, but in a way it makes perfect sense. While some of his audience may feel the anger and confusion of these past injustices for this first time, there’s a sense that he has found a way to live with it, or to separate himself from the rage which must never really fade.
Alongside Beau’s misgivings that gay men can ever truly live in peace, Rufus brings something of the opposite. His preoccupation of the past seems rooted in a belief that there was a “golden age” that he somehow managed to just miss. Of course, the line between naivety and optimism is a fine one, but it appears that, by treading this line, Rufus’ life flourishes. This is painful to watch in itself, because their different philosophies aren’t just a reflection of personality. Instead, Rufus is able to live a varied and exciting life because he possesses a trepidation that Beau’s many encounters with loss essentially crushed out of him. Rufus is able to thrive because he lives in a world that allows him to do so. The introduction of Harry (Harry Lawtey) shifts the focus yet again, offering yet another level of generational divide and development.
Although I loved the experience of this play, there are moments that feel a little close to a list of important names and events. These serve to ground it firmly in the real world, but also sometimes veer towards didacticism, with Beau functioning slightly more as a symbolic bystander of history than as an independent, developed character. However, that’s the sort of small criticism that only comes with hindsight. While actually watching the play I was entirely captivated (and at a couple of moments definitely crying), and really, that’s what counts.
Gently Down the Stream is playing the Park Theatre until 16 March 2019. For more information and tickets, see the Park Theatre website.