Published in the Guardian
Look on Amazon and you'll find a poster for sale for the film version of Staircase.It features Rex Harrison and Richard Burton dancing hand in hand, cocking their legs behind, with the slogan "Whoops!". This was 1969 and the subtext was clear: here were two straight movie icons camping it up for laughs.
Yet Charles Dyer's largely forgotten two-hander, first performed by the RSC in 1966 with Paul Scofield and Patrick Magee, is far from being a gay send-up. In this single-act staging, it proves to be a sad lament to the lives wasted – and sometimes snuffed out – because of the perceived stigma around homosexuality.
Set in an out-of-hours East End barber – crisply captured in blacks, whites and greys by designer Kenny Miller – it shows how even the fantasy life of a gay man can be bound down by his internalised repression. Tron artistic director Andy Arnold plays a former actor who, after being arrested for breach of the peace for dressing in drag and sitting on a man's lap, still insists "there's nothing poofy about me, I'm normal". Playing opposite Benny Young as his apparent lover, he is an unreliable narrator whose egocentric stories seem purpose-built to contradict themselves. Being in denial is his default position.
The character, like the playwright, is called Charlie Dyer and their fantasies are mutual. The world they create – an unsustainable mythology of success and charisma – is a cover for alienation, self-disgust and underachievement. What starts as a bitterly funny bickering session ends as a lonely monologue by a man forbidden to be himself.
Arnold's production gains in stature as it goes on. At first, there is little tonal variation and sourness overwhelms the comedy, but it finishes with poignancy. (Pic: John Johnston)
© Mark Fisher 2011
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