An unusual father-son relationship lies at the heart of the latest offering from Above the Stag, “the UK’s only full-time LGBT theatre.” The Sum of Us is a 1990 play by David Stevens that tells the story of Jeff, a twenty-four year-old gay man who lives happily and openly with his widowed father Harry — perhaps too happily and openly. One of the play’s funniest scenes features Jeff bringing Greg, a potential boyfriend, back home only for his dad to join the party with awkward insistences that Greg call him ‘dad’. Suffice to say that tolerance ends up smothering romance.
If this sounds familiar, then you may have seen the 1994 movie with Russell Crowe as Jeff. The conceit of putting a deeply harmonious relationship at the centre of the play makes for a somewhat slow beginning, as the drama seems a bit forced at first. But ultimately it paves the way for a poignant exploration of love and loneliness as both Harry and Jeff seek partners in defiance of the norms of their sexual community. Greg finds Jeff’s family circumstances too cosy for sex, while the homophobic Joyce — Harry’s romantic hope – finds them too cosy for comfort. So far so neat and predictable, but rest assured, where the story ends up is far from either.
One of the curious features of the play is its use of monologues: the actors sometimes turn away from the action and break the fourth wall (or ‘feature wall’ as it amusingly figures in the play) to tell the audience how they are feeling. This seems clunky at first, but the device is used to very moving effect in the final scene. It also allows the play to handle head-on the thorny issue of gay paternity, seemingly as fresh in 2015 as in 1990. Harry explains in one thought-provoking soliloquy why he is sorry his son is gay: because it means he cannot experience, as he has, the miracle of planting a seed in his wife’s womb and watching it grow into “the sum of us” — a son who in this case happens to be gay.
Director Gene David Kirk’s handling of the play is straight-forward, with a realistic setting in suburban Melbourne. But this is a wordy play and relies heavily on strong actors. Fortunately, Stephen-Connery Brown is superb as the disarmingly open, charmingly jocular Harry. Jeff is a tough part to play — he worries about being dull — yet Tim McFarland, helped by arrestingly good looks, makes him likeable enough. Rory Hawkins as Greg and Annabel Pemberton as Joyce play convincing supporting roles.
The Sum of Us is playing at Above the Stag in Vauxhall until 4 October. Tickets are £18. Londonist saw this play on a complimentary press ticket.