Downtown – Pulse Fringe Festival

Forget all your troubles, forget all you cares and go Downtown. So encourages Petula Clark in her seminal 1965 smash hit. If you go down to the New Wolsey Theatre for Paul T. Davies’ new play of the same name, however, you’re not going to get an ode to New York but rather a clumsy and clunky play that sets gay equality back by several decades.

After a heavy night’s drinking, burly Tony’s partner is singing along to Shirley Bassey in a fetching red sequinned dress. Bernie is an ageing drag queen and Tony’s soon-to-be ex-wife, the whining and bitchy Sheila, isn’t too happy about it. Sheila wants a baby with Tony, Bernie is having to avoid being bumped off by Dame Judy (Dench), Monica from downstairs is high on ecstasy and, to top it all, a visiting policeman turns out to be a male stripper.

All very over the top and outrageous and, while shows such as Gimme, Gimme, Gimme have demonstrated that creating shocking characters can deliver hilarious comic potential, it requires writing of considerable skill. Unfortunately, Paul T.Davies relies on sterotypes and clichés by the diamante-encrusted bucket load.

There are a few giggles but Monica, played with razor-sharp timing by Jane Cole, seems to have been given the lion’s share of what original dialogue there is. The rest, unfortunately, is very derivative of the aforementioned Kathy Burke vehicle and La Cage Aux Folles.

In the programme notes, Davies attempts to suggest that Downtown is a life-affirming representation of gay men; the reality is that he portrays in Downtown a very small cross-section of the LGB community with all the sensitivity and skill afforded to the Afro-Caribbean community in Love Thy Neighbour in the 1970s.

As drag queen Bernie, Paul Stone creates a pantomime monster of Hammer Horror proportions, while John Ling, who excelled in Serendipity’s recent outing, Of Mice & Men, looked plain uncomfortable as Tony. Sally Scurrell’s Sheila failed to convince as the cuckquean wife, although there were some nicely rounded and deadpan observations when left to her own devices.

Littered with gratuitous expletives, the dialogue fares little better than the ropey performances. And that’s the challenge of being a writer/director – when there’s nobody to tell you that something doesn’t work, it’s all in danger of becoming a little self-indulgent.

According to Paul T. Davies, Downtown aspires to be Brokeback Mountain but, ultimately, it barely manages to be a bump on the horizon. Hopefully in a rear-view mirror.

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