6 SEPTEMBER 2008, Page 45

Conservative mores

Lloyd Evans

Tory Boyz Soho Sick Room Soho The Pretender Agenda New Players

The Conservatives were once a party of proud Etonians and closet homosexuals; now they’re a party of closet Etonians and proud homosexuals. This is the background to Tory Boyz, a new play by James Graham for the National Youth Theatre which examines the shifting attitudes of the Tory high command to gays within their ranks. Clumsily arranged, the play opens with the age-old question about Ted Heath and then shifts to a group of ambitious researchers whose only connection with Heath is that they work in his old office. Scroll back a few decades and we’re shown young Ted as a predictably tortured soul, picking at the piano, doting on his mother, rejecting the advances of gorgeous blondes and methodically suppressing his instincts in the pursuit of his career. But what instincts, exactly? Keeping his proclivities secret was the only thing Heath ever managed competently. He left no clues or witnesses, no kiss-and-tell guardsmen spilling the beans about spilling the beans. The play skirts turgidly around the issue, revealing nothing because there’s nothing to reveal.

But as soon as it fast-forwards to the present day, it acquires vibrancy and selfconfidence. We watch Sam, a gay workingclass Tory as he clashes with his boss, Nick, a smug Home Counties homophobe. Sam harbours ambitions to instruct teenagers in the intricacies of the democratic system and he initiates a role-play scheme at a local comp where the kids form a ‘Cabinet’ and appoint each other to the great offices of state. The results are chaotically comic. ‘Point of order, sir. Is it OK for the Home Secretary to tell the Prime Minister to f*** off?’ We flit several times between the school-room slapstick and the researchers’ office where Nick and Sam spar and tussle.

Despite its bittiness and its tendency to cram its plate with too many goodies, this is an entertaining show, well researched and distinguished by fine acting. Dan Ings as the loveable slimeball Nick is a joy to watch. I’ve never heard ‘scheisse-chiefs’ as an expression of annoyance (a pun on Kaiser Chiefs; it doesn’t work on the page, you have to say it out loud), but it’s exactly the sort of trendy inanity an obnoxious Tory thruster would spout. Ings is an actor to watch. And this play, at least in the scenes that work, is hugely rewarding.

Sick Room, written and directed by John Nicholson, is so tired an idea that it probably qualifies as avant garde. It’s a hospital sketch show. Here’s a sample. Enter patient, both arms heavily bandaged. Q: ‘What happened?’ A: ‘Flying accident. I’ve discovered I can’t.’ I laughed at that and at about a quarter of the material which is a perfectly respectable success rate with new comedy. Write more, prune more, look beyond the walls of the sick-bay, Mr Nicholson, and you’ll have a first-class revue on your hands. After the sketch show comes a Sean Hughes playlet heavily influenced by Woody Allen. The plot follows a newly hatched virus that causes kids to age prematurely and turn into ranting bigots. I’m a big fan of Hughes but this under-funny, overly conceptual play isn’t his finest work.

An energetic comedy has opened at the New Players Theatre, a pokey old musichall located under the crotch of Charing Cross Bridge. Despite its Victorian heritage, the foyer and bar of the New Players have a stubbornly provincial feel. The auditorium is a different matter, a quirky, skinny enclosure with an intimate scruffy atmosphere. Hard place to find, though. Head for the Mediterranean splendours of Villiers Street with its raffish wine bars and bistros, take a left turn half-way up and you’ll see the theatre tucked away in a Gothic underpass perfumed with Special Brew, micturation and rough sex. The Pretender Agenda, written and directed by Jonathan Manoe, features a solid cast of regulars from TV soaps. Tim McQuillen-Wright’s set can’t quite cope with the multiple demands placed on it and the ill-defined ante-rooms hamper the play’s flow occasionally. But the script has a strong storyline and offers great opportunities for Ben Jones (Holby City, Spooks) as a charismatic lothario and for Emily Aston (Coronation Street, Heartbeat) as a manipulative temp-from-hell who gatecrashes a party and plays off her bosses brilliantly against one another. Sue Devaney (The Bill, Casualty) shines as the blonde vamp who wants it all, and Lee Ryan (from the expired boyband Blue) easily matches his more experienced co-luvvies. This is undemanding fare but it’s great fun, especially if there’s a decent crowd and everyone’s had three glasses of wine.