One of the greatest things about theatre is that is always has the capacity to surprise. I’ve been at this regular online reviewing lark for nearly 450 consecutive days now and was beginning to think I had seen all that there was to see in terms of content, style and format – but then, of course, something completely different hails into view.
For a small venue the Finborough Theatre has punched well above its weight over the last fifteen months regularly releasing a stream (literally) of some of their greatest hits followed by some new commissions and more latterly recorded readings of new work and older favourites. Their latest piece to hit the ether is Leather which was performed live last week and is now available on demand. It is a play which isn’t for the faint hearted and comes trailing clouds of notoriety as one of the first plays (if not THE very first) to highlight male rape, domestic violence and sado-masochism within the gay community. First produced at the Finborough back in 1990, Peter Scott-Presland’s drama played to regularly full houses despite the brewery that owned the venue attempting to close it down in the wake of the Section 28 controversy. It also split the critics: Time Out remarked that it “boldly tackles issues” whereas the Evening Standard branded it as “this squalid little play”. This 30th anniversary production reunites two original cast members with three newcomers and transfers the whole thing onto the Zoom platform as a rehearsed reading which still has the power to shock and be confrontational though perhaps in rather more muted form.
Phil and Gordon start a relationship but as a victim of a horrendous rape (graphically described) the latter has problems with commitment towards the older kindly seeming man. Phil’s friend Terry enters the mix and soon it is he and Gordon that have formed a couple. The newcomer introduces his partner to the leather and bondage scene and gradually Gordon finds himself obsessed with and sucked into a world that it would seem natural for him, given his history, to want to avoid. Phil, particularly, cannot see how Gordon has allowed himself to become enthralled and takes his own desperate measures to win Gordon back. The horrendous denouement is meant to shock – and it does. There’s a secondary strand about Phil getting caught up in gay rights activism battling against repression but which also shows the character’s innate need to organise, control and even dominate. This sees him on a similar downward spiral to that experienced in his personal relationship. It begins to seem as if both he and Gordon are caught up in some sort of need to inflict pain and degradation on themselves; I felt that this needed a bit more investigation.
It must have been a very difficult play to rehearse and perform in separated locations as it totally requires a sense of proximity and even intimacy to make it work. Nevertheless, the two leads Mathew Hodson (Phil) and Denholm Spur (Gordon) largely convince with the latter, particularly, exuding a wounded vulnerability hiding some very dark desires. Hodson’s character trajectory is frightening in that it demonstrates what desperation can do. Will Forester’s Terry is clearly an unsavoury character from the get-go but, as written, the character is a bit one dimensional. Keith Bursnall’s Clive also suffers from the same fate; this overly camp sponger hasn’t aged well seeming like something of a cliché in 2021. Steve Mackay contributes half a dozen minor characters most notably an unprepossessing trader in bondage gear.
It’s hardly an ideal choice of play for the Zoom platform and there are moments when the limitations of the format really show up particularly in the pacing of the piece. There are also some inconsistencies as regards costume (or lack of the same) and the passing of props which should have been better thought through. However, it is apparently one of the Finborough’s most requested revivals so the chance for a wider and newer audience to get to see it is undoubtedly a good thing. Just be prepared for a very uncomfortable time as this rather depressing cause celebre unfolds and be thankful that the identified problems have been brought out into the open and that there are now charities to which such unfortunate victims can turn.