Senior police office Tom (Philip Voss) is in the closet. When TV celebrity Russell (Sean Gallagher) appears with a phalanx of (off-stage) photographers, Tom admits to his family that the two of them “have history.” He’s not the only one. Jonathan Harvey’s sincere new play “Canary” is a history lesson, a kaleidoscopic guide to five decades of gay male sexual politics. Unfortunately, it never coalesces into developed drama.
Harvey flashes back to Tom’s life as a young man in the 1960s, almost a decade before sex between men in the U.K. was decriminalized. Caught in flagrante with his boyfriend Billy (engagingly subtle Kevin Trainor), Tom evades justice by blaming Billy. The play then intercuts past and present following their divergent paths.
What emerges is a whistlestop tour through attitudes and moments of British gay politics from anger through liberation to AIDS and beyond. Impassioned though it is, “Canary” is also underwritten because Harvey crams in far too much material. And the non-chronological approach leads to laziness. Solely to fill auds in on the timeline, one of two boys curled up on a sofa exclaims, “Guess what I heard on the radio today? Marilyn Monroe is dead.”
The effect is like watching linked sketches, advertisements for significant staging posts on a sexual civil-rights march, the writing too schematic to carry the hoped-for emotional weight. When, out of nowhere, politicized Mickey arrives in a working-class home to provide solidarity with a striking miner’s family, it makes the handling of similar politics in “Billy Elliot” look like “The Cherry Orchard.”
Indeed, echoes of other dramas are present throughout. There are structural and thematic debts to “Angels in America” — the mother, displaced in time, even flies at one point — and the elastic use of time is markedly similar to Caryl Churchill’s early masterpiece “Cloud Nine.”
In Hettie Macdonald’s well-acted production, scenes around an AIDS bed and moments of true friendship are undeniably poignant but the prevailing mood is puzzlement: who exactly is this for? Gay men old enough to have lived through the eras depicted are granted nothing new. Younger and/or unaware straight audiences could enjoy the political perspective and the camp humor, but with the drama so undernourished, the meal ends up less than satisfying.