Kevin Elyot’s debut play, Coming Clean, is back as the King’s Head Theatre’s production returns to London’s West End. In pre-AIDS 80s Thatcherite Britain a gay couple Tony (Lee Knight) and Greg (Stanton Plummer-Cambridge) feel out the boundaries of their long-term relationship. Enter a young, sexy cleaner named Robert (Jonah Rzeskiewicz) who puts things to the test because, well, theatre!
Coming Clean debuted in 1982 and marked Elyot’s start as a professional playwright and there is a scrappy air of melodrama to the text that’s evened out by the truth found in his frank look at gay life. Almost 40 years later, it’s clear that many of the questions Elyot asks about queer relationships are still unresolved.
If the play feels a bit dated, it’s because it is, but director Adam Spreadbury-Maher wisely roots this revival in the 80s. Gay men were not necessarily forced to stay in the closet, but they lacked the equalities we now have. These are gay men in a society that is in the midst of big changes, for Tony and Greg to be celebrating five years together… for Greg to be loved by Tony’s mother… for Robert (an actor by trade) to be able to discuss his love life with straight actor friends… these were once extraordinary things.
Tony and Greg’s domestic issues are juxtaposed with Tony’s best friend William (Elliot Hadley) – single and prowling the scene. While the couple struggle with their dimming sex life, William enjoys the highs and lows of cruising and anonymous sex. It’s all territory that has been well trodden in the years since, but Elyot delivers enough insight and nuance into the material to make it feel more real than other plays (like the vaguely similar setup of Afterglow).
What is the line between monogamy, an open-relationship, or just discreet, unmentioned hook-ups? When does the thrill of cruising become too dangerous to continue? Can you love more than one person at a time?
This production started life at the King’s Head Theatre, a noted fringe venue, and had previously transferred to the Trafalgar Studios in early 2019. This returned run features many of the same cast, and definitely holds on to the fringe aesthetic – the set, a disheveled flat in London, looks disturbingly dirty (the neat freak in me was not happy) more like student digs than a gay couple’s home. The performances are solid. Newcomer Jonah Rzeskiewicz brings an innocence and natural charm to Robert. Hadley plays William broadly for comedy. While Lee Knight’s Tony sits in the center ground. At times the quartet of characters doesn’t quite gel, but when it does, like the final scene, it’s a joy.
The show’s finale is funny but in the end Elyot refuses to give us the answers to the questions he’s raised, and the production fades out. Coming Clean isn’t Elyot’s best play (that would be My Night With Reg IMO) but it remains an interesting and important piece of UK gay theatre nonetheless.
By Chad Armstrong
Coming Clean plays at Trafalgar Studios 2 until February 1st 2020. Tickets are available via the ATG website.