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Phil Willmott

Review: THIS ISLAND’S MINE at The Kings Head Theatre

This Island's Mine Remarkably this is the first ever revival of Philip Osment’s beautiful play, a seminal work from a now defunct theatre company called Gay Sweatshop.

These days there’s an openly gay agenda to huge swathes of UK Theatre (TV too) but back in the late 1980s the LGBT community was so marginalised that this Arts Council funded organisation was necessary to make work for and about us. (I'm very proud to say I also wrote a hit play for them some years later)

Rather like a short British version of TALES OF THE CITY, in which novelist Armistead Maupin chronicled the lives, loves and concerns of San-Francisco’s bohemians centred around a boarding house and eccentric landlady, Osment’s play does the same. His crumbling British boarding house is owned by Miss Rosenblum who once fled Nazi Germany and first came to live there as a paid companion to a Russian princess and her ginger tom cat.

The life of almost every notable character in the story is touched by the house in some way and the play is populated by a series of engaging men and women all of whom must face battles great and small in a society antagonistic to alternative sexualities - in the press, the work place, the police force, on the street and in the family home where the heterosexual community was horrified and bewildered by the spread of AIDS, regarded as a gay plague.

Rather like a Dickens novel, at first the characters seem unconnected but gradually the lives of the landlady, a young man coming out and his older cynical uncle, a lesbian couple, actors rehearsing the Tempest, Caliban, a waiter and his boyfriend cross paths giving us a snapshot of what it was like to be LGBT in Thatcher’s Britain.

Remarkably Osment never resorts to caricature or even archetypes, each strand of the story is written with great emotional truth, nuanced detail and warmth. There’s a dash of magic realism and humour too, quite rightly, despite everything we had a lot of fun (and a lot of sex!) back then. 

The script requires a cast of 8 to play multiple roles in a fast moving kaleidoscope of scenes. And it needs to be staged swiftly and with great control by the director so that, as with a beautiful piece of music, the right motifs come to the fore at the right time. Luckily Philip Wilson takes the helm of an elegant assured production in which the whole company conjure up dozens of characters with minimal set and costume changes. It’s an amazing achievement from everyone involved.

My only slight issue, beyond their control, is that the play is such a bombardment of riches that it really needs an interval as originally performed to give the piece a little space to breath. Jam-packed programming at The Kings Head requires full length plays in the 7pm slot to run straight through without a break. Nearly two hours without an interval does ask a lot from audience’s concentration levels and bladder control.

Regardless of this it’s fitting that this smart, skilful revival and reminder of times past is playing at the Kings Head which has always been at the forefront of premiering and reviving LGBT work. I’ve directed over five such productions there amidst dozens of others. Mind you, it’s never been an entirely altruistic policy, successive artistic directors have spotted that LGBT theatre has a clear target audience to be harvested with wise, funny and sexy shows and marketing. Nevertheless it feels like this brilliant play has “come home”.

You’ve only a week left to catch this glorious account of recent LGBT history.