Monologues are tricky things to pull off. By definition, there’s only one performer, so that performer has to be at the top of their game to grab the audience’s attention and keep it, captivated, imprisoned, enchanted, for the length of the piece. In the case of Saturday Night Forever, actor Delme Thomas more than capably scoops up every single person watching him and takes them on a rollercoaster journey which runs the whole gamut of human emotion. This is a powerful piece performed by a powerful actor who knows his craft, and makes for essential viewing.
Thomas plays Lee, a young gay man living in Cardiff who tells us his story. He starts off by telling us about his life with his boyfriend Matthew, how and why that relationship crumbled, and then how a new relationship developed. It’s a pretty straightforward story – one of love and lust, anguish and tragedy – but playwright Roger Williams has laced it with such truth and honesty that whether you’re gay or straight, young or old, you can’t help but relate to Lee’s life.
Williams paints a picture of what it’s like to be a young gay man in 2015. Or rather, a certain type of gay man. The preening, the shopping, the partying, the social media, the promiscuity. And you can tell that Williams has radically updated the text since it was first written in 1998. Where once they danced to Kylie, they now bust their moves to Rita Ora. Where once they watched Blind Date on a Saturday night before going out, they now slump in front of The X Factor and bitch on Twitter and Facebook.
There’s a finely observed section of the play in which Lee describes the horrors of using the gay dating app Grindr – the eye-popping photos, the less than subtle profile titles, the straight-to-the-point opening gambits. In fact, everything in this piece is finely observed and portrayed, from the Saturday afternoon shopping for a new outfit, through to the nightclub body language, even down to the way some guys suggestively suck on their WKDs. It’s a masterful analysis of the gay scene and a beautifully written text.
A text can be as beautiful and masterful as it likes, but without the right performer – someone who can grab the audience by lifting the words off the page and embodying them – it is nothing. Luckily, casting director Nicola Reynolds and director Kate Wasserberg found in Delme Thomas a wonderfully skilled and above all charismatic actor. He’s handsome, loveable and relatable in equal measure, and carries the text lightly when needed, but brings the strength of the tragedy to the fore when required too. Whoever performs this play has to be able to act (and act alone in monologue, let’s remember), they have to be able to sing (of a fashion!) and they even have to have the bravery to take their shirt off (this last bit is in no way gratuitous, but is actually fundamentally important to the plot). One thing they don’t have to do, though, is dance…
Delme Thomas tells this comic tragedy with such passion and character and depth that the story he tells you comes alive in your mind. It’s like watching a radio play, or travelling back in time to when you were a kid and your mind was captivated by someone reading a fairytale on Jackanory. Thomas uses Williams’s words to weave a thoroughly engrossing, believable and relatable story, and the audience can’t help but be ensnared.
Without wanting to give the story away too much, there is heartache, heartbreak and tragedy in this play. It does not end happily, but you can kind of see that coming from a very long way off. Anybody who watches soaps knows that as soon as a character says they’re overwhelmingly happy for the first time in their life, tragedy lurks just around the corner.
But it is the truth of the tragedy which hurts most. The characters in the story are so well drawn, and so likeable in their own ways, that when bad things happen, it cuts like a knife. Violence against gay men is still a major issue in 2015. There may be more visibility and acceptance these days, and there may be more equal rights and opportunities, but the danger still exists, throbbing beneath society’s surface. It’s so hard for straight people to understand the fear gay men might feel walking down the street hand in hand. Straight couples don’t need to think twice before kissing in public, or putting their arms round each other. The love between two men feels exactly the same – warm, comfortable, reassuring, empowering – as that between a man and a woman. But there is still intolerance toward the “love that dare not speak its name”, and sometimes that intolerance manifests itself in horrifying ways. When Lee’s cracked voice intones: “The first thing I lost was his hand”, a lump will rise in your throat.
This play brought tears to my eyes. It brought tears to my husband’s eyes, and it reduced the woman three seats along from me to a gibbering wreck. It made the woman in front of me cry, and I heard sniffs from behind me too. It’s an intensely powerful play, made all the more affecting through its simplicity and thanks to its startling central performance. It’s a love story which ends tragically, but when that fairly routine soap story is transplanted onto a gay character, it feels fresher. It’s certainly no less upsetting.
One last tip of the hat to lighting director Zakk Hein for managing to make a set of strip lights seem like a myriad of locations, from front room to nightclub to city street to hospital. The colour changes reflect the text, so when Grindr is first mentioned, they turn a bright yellow (users will know why), and when the Incredible Hulk is namechecked, the lights flash lime green. Beautiful, evocative and playful set and lighting design.
Saturday Night Forever is a fun, and very funny, play. But don’t expect to come away feeling elated, or that you’ve just spent 50 minutes in the company of a really cool gay best friend. Because it’s more than that. If you’ve ever loved another human being, you’ll leave heartbroken and unavoidably moved.
Saturday Night Forever reviewed at Theatr Clwyd, Mold. Further performances Chapter, Cardiff, December 11th & 12th, 2015
Read Roger Williams on writing Saturday Night Forever: http://www.asiw.co.uk/my-own-words/saturday-night-forever-roger-williams
Photography Keith Morris
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