Pounding music and moody purples flood the stage, drowning out any and all inhibitions. The half-naked young men cut up lines and rip poppers, seeking highs from whatever (and whoever) they can get their hands on. In the cold light of day, their heads will hang heavy with shame and regret – but at night? They pulse with pleasure and relief.
Written by Paul Harvard, GHBoy is a knowing exploration of London’s chemsex community: a hard-partying clique where sex is casual, and drugs are commonplace. Centred around Rob (Jimmy Essex), a stalwart of this queer scene (“I’ve got a handful of poppers and a well-worn jockstrap”), the play examines how trauma is created and smothered by this world of infidelity and substance abuse. We join Rob as he seeks therapy for his self-destructive ways, using art in his meetings to access his subconscious – it’s Kevin Elyot’s Coming Clean by way of John Logan’s Red. However, there’s also a wider malevolence at play: an unnamed killer is slashing his way through the chemsex crowd… and how does Rob fit in to it all?
The answer, seemingly, is at the very centre. Under Jon Pashley’s direction, the scenes bleed into one another, slickly intercutting and overlapping – at one point, Rob is reassuring his fiancé, seducing a one-night stand, and confessing to his therapist, all at once. It’s an intense and ambitious narrative flurry, stylised to the extreme, and it’s on the hinges whether or not the audience takes to the character.
Luckily, Rob is a magnificent creation. Like many of his chemsex peers, he’s made up of many ironic layers: he’s a 35-year-old party boy who worries he’s too ‘immature’ for his 20-year-old Catalonian lover; he’s a GHB user, who ‘fights’ his demons by further leaning into their intoxicating ways; and he’s a promise-maker who immediately goes back on his word, admonishing himself as he does so. In as much, Jimmy Essex gives an Atlas-like performance, holding the rest of the play up with his charisma, vulnerability, and grief. Each time he reaches out for sexual validation, or swerves a difficult conversation, it’s heartbreakingly sincere – Rob languishes in his trauma, and we languish with him.
Which is great, because the rest of the play suffers in comparison: everything else seems one-dimensional when put next to Rob…which may be because there is too much going on. As much as the play sets out to examine the realities of the chemsex scene, it also has major detours into systemic homophobia, racism in the post-Grindr gay community, and the role of art in overcoming trauma. This last diversion is also the one that suffers the most – the presence of art is never fully justified within the larger play, either thematically or narratively; when Rob plays with his paints, it may be nice for him, but it’s a confusing digression for the audience.
GHBoy is running at the Charing Cross Theatre until 20th December. For more information and tickets, see the Charing Cross Theatre website.