The littering of a young man’s possessions colour the set which reeks of early 80s opulence; strewn socks, an unbuckled belt, a wet towel. The space undeniably feels inhabited. Through the plot of The Morning After we follow the unfolding relationship of two men who tip-toe towards an idealised married life. The framed pop-art poster of a woman slammed center stage foreshadows the overbearing mother figure who will derail any essence of normativity in the couple’s attempts to secure love.
Andrew Beckett directs a performance which is certainly colourful, and garishly so. Vocal work is, at times, undeniably grating. Delivery is consistently exaggerated which undoes itself in its extremities and falls flat. You can almost read the discomfort in the actor’s faces as they force themselves to laugh and push through to their next line. Pacing is a major issue within this performance which does a great disservice to the cast’s abilities. Pauses are consistently wasted. The action would benefit greatly from a stronger sense of comedic timing as the jokes lose flow in the rigidity of the dialogue. Moments of humour are often disjointed as the audience isn’t given the space to respond. This lack of pauses leaves no room to breathe.
The jokes are hit and miss, the misses falling with a dull thud into the silent audience. Puns about pornography and the odd reference to a steamy romp by an older actress elicits chuckles across the audience. It is when Peter Quilter’s writing adopts more intricate and subtle approaches to word play that humour truly thrives. I would be inclined to believe that the performance would have been far less uncomfortable had this element of the writing been given greater attention.
Confusingly enough, much of the humour of the play relies heavily on slapstick. While there are distinct moments of hilarity including a cinnamon roll placed lovingly on a man’s bare backside, one may argue for the outdatedness of this style. Even when the gag is executed effectively, with champagne spraying all over an actor’s face or a mother waltzing in on a passionate kiss, a sheer lack of pacing draws upon the straightforward predictability of these jokes. The execution is far from slick. The recurring gags of this performance need to either evolve or die as the radio alarm clock is smashed into a depleted scene opener. The wedding dress lodged in a door frame so clearly commands one suspends their disbelief that the joke withers after its very first impact (the dress harbours no interior structure which would even suggest it could possibly get stuck in a door frame and thus the joke crumbles). The audience become accustomed to being set up to laugh and throughout this exhaustive process, the sparks of surprise are totally diminished.
The characters are kept in a two-dimensional framework which resigns them to a flat and loveless delivery. There is certain chemistry throughout the performance, albeit I wish the play were sexier. The intimacy is surface and there’s a distinct lack of tenderness in more intimate moments. When the mother-in-law accepts her new son, there is no essence of true emotionality which could draw upon audience investment. These short moments remain too exaggerated which creates difficulty in the way of forming compelling relationships between characters. I found myself forced to engage with what was fundamentally, lacklustre. Thomas, played by David Fenne, presented an opportunity to tether the audience to a tangible figure in an obscure realm of extreme characters, however his fluctuations between discomfort and passive acceptance rendered him impossible to connect with. I cannot fathom a single character detail from Adam, played by Chris Cahill, which may give him biographical context other than that he is an archetypal Mummy’s boy.
I worry deeply about the sexual shaming of Thomas’ character which becomes a recurrent theme in the first half of the performance. Derogatory language towards women flicked back at gay men seems to bear no weight in the context of a bedroom conversation following a casual hook-up when the crushing reality of shaming someone’s bodily autonomy remains a disturbing topic of everyday relationships. This was seemingly handled with little sensitivity and I wonder how this type of contextually misogynistic language would translate into a heteronormative conversation centred around the reduction of autonomy in female bodies.
Then there’s the navigation of drunk sex. This remains a questionable topic which requires levity and clarification. It is clearly used as a clunky note of exposition, however the memory blanks of the characters conceived through shreds of drunken recollections alludes to issues regarding the notion of consent in a distinctly uncomfortable fashion.
There are moments of clear light throughout this production. The performance promised a more positive piece regarding m/m relationships and this was an undeniable truth of the production. The couple are treated in a normalised light, setting them apart as just any other couple approaching a long-term relationship. When the oversexualisation of gay men remains a prominent issue in LGBT+ representation, this piece is a fulfilling break from the onslaught of hyper-sexualisation thrusted upon queer narratives. The pride bow on Barbara, played by Colleen Daley, in her wedding dress marks a subtle pureness to a queer play which is fundamentally about love and modern relationships.
The Morning After is playing at the Above the Stag Theatre until the 1st March 2020 For more information and tickets, see Above that Stag Theatre’s website.