It’s a record breaker. The Trafalgar Studio is staging a rare revival of Christopher Hampton’s breakthrough play, written when he was 18, which made him in 1966 the youngest writer ever to have his work staged in the West End. This record has now stood for so long that it could probably do with a lie-down.
The plot, meticulously fashionable and youth-orientated, focuses on an unrequited affair between Ian and his flatmate Jimmy. Hampton’s conception of personality is underdeveloped. And overdeveloped, too. Most of his characters are handsome, vague, middle-class numbskulls, posh little tadpoles wriggling around a cosy pond. But the central character, Ian, is a brilliant study of brooding, adolescent misogyny. Fiercely intelligent, magnificently charismatic and overwhelmed by loneliness and self-doubt, Ian might have become a world-class political psychopath.
But this is the 1960s so he frets about his sexuality and yearns forlornly for handsome swains who give him nothing in return. Orphaned at 12, he spent his teenage years living with his detested grandparents. ‘How are your family?’ someone asks him casually. ‘Dead, mostly,’ he says. These flashes of exuberant cruelty are the play’s best feature. And Hampton’s examination of self-lacerating homosexuality is astonishingly mature.
But the plot doesn’t quite hold together. In the second act, Jimmy’s mother, a gorgeous and sophisticated blonde, develops an inexplicable crush on the wispy, waspish little Ian. They go to bed one drunken evening. Later she comes back begging for more. Yeah, right. Some chance.
Blanche MacIntyre’s direction is crisp and impressively assured but she hasn’t been able to call on first-class acting talents (apart from the excellent Abigail Cruttenden as Jimmy’s mum).