It isn’t too clear when this play is set as it starts with two men in an audition room wearing costumes that could be true to the early twentieth century. Or perhaps they are just trying to look the part. This soon faded away as the two begin telling the story of Long Beach, California in 1914 – a dark time for gay rights.
The two actors – Fraser Wall and James Sindall – take on an array of characters from journalists, policemen, and lawyers, to men who must hide their sexuality from polite society. Lines of morality are blurred as the actors go undercover to expose gay men in their community, while occasionally questioning the ethics of betraying a friend.
There are two stories here. The first is the one of the two actors waiting in the audition room, and the second is the historically accurate unravelling of events in 1914. The first storyline makes things more confusing if anything, as it adds even more characters and becomes hard to follow when they come in or out of character. The story they tell flows quite simply, as they both switch characters with a flick of a hat, or draping of a scarf which helps pinpoint a place in the narrative. It is indeed a fascinating story, so a simple telling of it would have sufficed too.
It isn’t a promising start when everyone else is laughing in the auditorium. It was difficult to place what it was in the jokes that I was missing. Perhaps it is generational or an inside community joke that goes straight over my head. There’s a point at the end that hints toward American life under a Trump Presidency that could also have played a more prominent role in the narrative. Yet it would be unfair to say that this play isn’t witty. It could be assumed that the aim here is to show the idea of “All the World’s a Stage” and that everyone is constantly playing a role to fit into their setting.
Fraser Wall and James Sindall are rather brilliant at keeping such a complex story under control. Their acting stays at a consistent high regardless of which character they’re playing, or how quickly they switch between them.
The Twentieth Century Way serves as a reminder that while we would like to hope otherwise, we have not yet left prejudices entirely behind us; and there is always the fear that we could revert to more primitive attitudes. It’s just a shame that there is so much to dig through in this play to reach that conclusion.
The Twentieth Century Way plays Jermyn Street Theatre until 27th Jan 2017.