AIDs, drugs, fabulous clothes and a bad father-son relationship. Sound familiar? Anthony Bull’s Mirrorball relies on every gay cliché in the well-worn book, as Terry (James Moore) medicates his internalised shame with coke binges, unprotected sex and disco anthems in early 80s London. After months of night-sweats and rapid weight loss, our “queen of the party scene” discovers his prolific shagging has led him rather predictably to develop “Advanced Immune… some kind of acronym”. Angels in America it ain’t. The play has two scenes, both set in Terry’s Earls Court flat: in the first, he and his friend (played by Charlotte Higgins) discuss his first realisation that he was “a bender” and catalogue his many sexual exploits with mildly amusing but patently obvious humour. In the second, Higgins’s character and her boyfriend (Jonathan Holby) clean the hospitalised Terry’s bedsit whilst debating disease, parental drama and, because it’s the 80s, er, something about the Falklands and Thatcher (“bitch”).
The actors, Moore and Higgins in particular, do their best to lift the flat dialogue and even manage to bring some depth to their cardboard characters. Though clearly accomplished, however, they are battling against an unimaginative script and the scale of the venue – Latitude’s expansive Theatre Tent, in which all actors are mic’ed up as a matter of course. Moore and Higgins’s onstage chemistry, occasionally touching, certainly has the potential to develop over future performances and in a more intimate space. Moore pulls off tragic-camp with ease, although again it’s difficult to warm to his character too much given the above.
Bull’s dialogue – a mishmash of weak catty repartee, mundane platitudes and pseudo-intense silences that are broken only by the sounds of plastic chairs slamming upright as audience members made for the exit – keeps the ‘issues’ of the play relentlessly at the forefront, never allowing us to do any work for ourselves or forget the ‘topical’ cultural context. Often, it sounds like we’re listening to a synopsis or a series of character profiles: “I’m not a carbon copy of my parents'” Holby’s Hugh Grant-alike posh boy tells his girlfriend, “they didn’t want me to go to art school”.
This complete lack of original perspective or dramatic intrigue would be forgivable if Mirrorball was good fun, or left any genuine emotional impact. Instead, I feel forced to ask: what exactly is the purpose of writing and staging a play like this today? Yes, the 80s are back – if not in our wardrobes (we’re all wearing 90s prints now, keep up), then in our economic and foreign policy, with a Tory-led government imposing an austerity programme against a backdrop of interminable military interventions and occupations, etc. This fact hasn’t escaped anyone who has left the house or opened a newspaper in the past three years. But the play offers no analysis of the ways in which economic austerity, a militarised culture and personal identity politics intersect, nor a fresh view on where we are today when it comes to drug use, mental health or HIV/AIDs in the so-called gay community. Instead, Bull and director Yasmeen Arden simply throw us shallow fragments of ideas, reflecting newspaper headlines and outdated, tacky tropes like the titular mirrorball. The effect is less than enlightening. Where is the alternative gay male narrative? And how has the Arcola Theatre, usually at the forefront of producing new and exciting work, programmed this colossal misfire?
Mirrorball played at Latitude Festival. For more shows and future festivals see the Latitude Festival website.