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STAGE REVIEW: Coming Clean – A play showing its age

Stanton Plummer-Cambridge as Greg, Jonah Rzeskiewicz as Robert & Lee Knight as Tony in Coming Clean. Photograph: Ali Wright. - Credit: Archant

TIM WALKER reviews Coming Clean – a performance at Trafalgar Studios in London until February 1st.

If there’s one actress it’s always enlightening to interview, it’s Dame Eileen Atkins. “Infidelity,” she told me, “is one of the last things you should fall out with someone over.”

That’s not the modus vivendi agreed by Tony (Lee Knight) and Greg (Stanton Plummer-Cambridge), who allow each other the odd one-night stand, but only on condition it must never become a two – or more – night stand. Discretion is also mandatory. Their relationship is thus imperilled when they employ an out-of-work actor named Robert (Jonah Rzeskiewicz) as their cleaner, and Greg becomes irresistibly attracted to him.

I need hardly point out that Coming Clean is another gay play from Kevin Elyot – it was written before his best-known work, My Night With Reg – but the problems of relationships are, of course, universal. The love triangle depicted here isn’t so very different from the one that involved Celia Johnson, Trevor Howard and Cyril Raymond in the old film classic Brief Encounter.

Just as in the film, Tony and Greg’s relationship at the outset seems, on the face of it, idyllic, but the arrival of an attractive interloper is used to put the case that “monogamy isn’t natural”. In the most interesting role as the catalyst for change, Rzeskiewicz excels: his clandestine grin when Tony discovers him and Greg in flagrante delicto is artfully conceived.

Plummer-Cambridge also acquits himself well as Greg: he is allowed at least to give a restrained, thoughtful performance in a production that calls too often for emotion, if not wearying hysteria.

The director Adam Spreadbury-Maher adroitly evokes the spirit of what now seems like the carefree early 1980s – when no one had heard of Aids and it was still possible to have a Michael Jackson poster up on the wall – but that only adds to the sense that this is a time capsule of a production.

Its full-frontal male nudity and gay sex scenes aren’t now remotely shocking to seasoned theatre-goers, and so, almost 40 years after it was written, it has only its plot and characterisation to fall back upon.

The plot, quite honestly, doesn’t take us one step forward from Brief Encounter, and, while very well acted by the whole ensemble, the lines the actors have to come out with make it difficult to care very much about any of them.

A lot of it simply hasn’t been thought through: Robert explains at length at the start of the play that he’s a young actor desperate to find work, but, when he finally lands a part, he let’s it slip almost casually and it doesn’t seem to matter at all to him. Is it likely, too, a couple in such a small flat in Kentish Town would employ a cleaner? Elliot Hadley’s neighbour William, meanwhile, seems so determinedly camp it’s hard not to see him as a something of a stereotype.

Maybe the real message here isn’t that love triangles make for unhappiness, but plays written with the sole intention to shock can, several decades on, start to appear very threadbare indeed.