Canary: A rich mix - an enjoyable romp, yet moving

Canary by Jonathan Harvey at Cambridge Arts Theatre until Saturday, June 19. Review by MIKE LEVY

Canary by Jonathan Harvey at Cambridge Arts Theatre until Saturday, June 19. Review by MIKE LEVY

JONATHAN Harvey’s new play is not what you might expect at the usually staid Arts Theatre.

His exploration of the last 40 years of gay history in Britain moves at roller coaster pace and gear shifts from panto to tragedy, from high camp comedy to moments of family anguish.

The play’s strength lies in its complex kaleidoscopic structure. We time shift from Mary Whitehouse’s deeply homophobic Festival of Light in 1971, through the devastating era of AIDS in the 80s, to the hedonism of the present day when the old battles have been largely forgotten.

Eschewing a nice easy-to-follow chronology, the playwright’s story of gay relationships switches from the present to the past and back again and cleverly mixes up fact and fantasy. Thus when the mother of gay activist Mickey meets her dead son and takes him in Peter Pan fashion up into the skies en route to Leningrad, we kind of believe it all. The play boldly mixes up make believe and all-too real moments (such as a heart-rending deathbed scene) and a grisly moment when an older gay man, Billy, comes face to face with the doctor who put him through the hell of chemical aversion therapy.

If all this sounds like a rich mix – it is. Most of it is in the form of a very enjoyable romp combined with an often very moving primer on recent gay history. If I have a few caveats to offer it is that play tries a bit too hard to say too much with the inevitable consequence that very little is offered to deepen or challenge our views. We kind of know that gays had to fight hard against prejudice and that AIDS was a catastrophe for a generation. Canary seemed to offer little surprising or new but that said, this is a highly energetic, bold production that will entertain, amuse and make you feel for the characters. That’s more than you expect.