As the cast of Jamie Lloyd’s revival of The Pride return to take their second bow, before a packed and emotional house, they each bear a placard with a dedication that causes the audience to rise to its feet: To Russia, With Love. The fond gesture is a fitting way to end a play which explores the themes of compassion and courage which punctuate the loneliness of a life half lived. A pair of love triangles intersect, when alternate incarnations of the same threesome try to find a way to live their lives honestly and their sexuality openly. The journey towards self-discovery forces one couple apart but offers hope for the future of another.
In 1958 Philip and Sylvia are waiting to leave for a dinner with Oliver – the author with whom illustrator Sylvia has been collaborating – the man she has been so excited for her husband to meet. Bright, intuitive Sylvia feels frustration at the ridiculous constraints of polite society and has found in Oliver a kindred spirit. Within moments of his arrival she urges Oliver to share with Philip a story about a revelation he had in Greece – about himself, his life and his future. She is bemused by Philip’s reactions to her creative friend, he is awkward and artificially hearty. As she leaves the two alone there is tension in the air, as though something imperceptible has shifted and one cannot help but feel that Sylvia has deliberately engineered the change.
In the present, Oliver (Al Weaver) is bereft. After suffering a series of Oliver’s humiliating infidelities, his boyfriend Philip (Harry Hadden-Paton) has reached breaking point and left the home they share. Their best friend Sylvia (Hayley Atwell) empathises, but her pragmatic nature insists that she also warn Olly of the damage his compulsive promiscuity will inevitably do. She advises him to at least consider the nature of the men behind the dicks he pursues, remarking that he should choose the yoga teachers and social workers over the fascists. Olly begs for her company, confiding that he is haunted by a curious sorrow and feels the scars of things long since past. He bears the weight of a history he has not lived and finds the burden frightening and oppressive.
The Philip of the past has been suffocating in his stifling day job as an estate agent and stifling the humiliating truth about his sexuality. A handful of passionate encounters with Oliver grant him a glimpse of the fulfilled life he could lead, in another place and time, but he slams the door closed on any hope of a future for the couple with cruel words and a brutal assault. When Sylvia’s unvoiced suspicions are finally confirmed she makes a selfless decision which will alter the course of all their lives. She and Oliver meet and briefly rekindle the bond they shared before she speaks her recent history aloud. For a fleeting moment there remains a chance for Philip to open his heart and live an honest life but instead he turns to the archaic therapies of the time, in a desperate search for a cure.
Soutra Gilmour’s set design places a pair of simple chairs and a vintage drinks cabinet, on an otherwise stark black parquet stage, in front of a giant tarnished mirror with a door cut into either side of its antiqued glass. The dark fairytale quality of it lends an extra sense of disquiet and atmosphere to the ghost story moments, when ripples of the past encircle the trio in déjà vu and partial recall. The majority of the action plays out downstage allowing us exceptional intimacy with these private lives. An ingenious device above a doorway allows torrential rain to fall and I was struck by how effectively the physical presence of water altered the mood onstage.
Invisible threads tether the contemporary Philip, Sylvia and Oliver to their other selves and there are echoes of the lives they have lived shimmering through their present. Sylvia is the anchor to each couple – generous with her open heart and her time – the point where their histories intertwine. At times the ghostly narrator, at others the bridge between lovers torn apart, each version of Sylvia shares the same aspiration for a better, more honest way of being. In one key scene between husband and wife, 1950s Sylvia provokes rare fire in Philip when she reminds him of a beloved friend from her acting days who took his life in the wake of a scandal. She reminds Philip how irrationally angry the man had made him on the single occasion they met and, at once, gives us an unblinkered look at the reality he so carefully hides. There is such exquisite tension in the moment – and such tenderness and pity in her voice – that my mind had written an entire narrative about a relationship between the two men before I realised no further words had been spoken on the subject.
With Matthew Horne making up the fourth cast member – in three memorable supporting roles – the small team of actors have a huge amount of rather dramatic ground to cover in The Pride’s two acts. And they do so, admirably. Alexi Kaye Campbell’s writing juxtaposes both eras effectively without detracting from either tale and balances the serious subject matter with colourful splashes of wit. Hayley Atwell is gracious, dignified and poised as Philips’s wife and vivacious, irreverent and naughty as Oliver and Philip’s trusted friend. Though called upon to flit between the two roles with head-spinning speed she never falters nor calls either’s believability into question. Her remarkable performance embodies the qualities of both Sylvias – allowing room for the men’s overarching love stories to flourish and for her talented co-stars to shine.
Both Al Weaver and Harry Hadden-Paton were a delight to watch. The former lends to the Oliver of the past a beautiful vulnerability and to his contemporary a guileless cheek through which the judders of heartache become all the more touching. The latter found so many layers of subtext in ‘50s Philip’s sorrow that I struggled to leave his story behind as I left the theatre. His is a spellbinding and powerful performance and one which strikingly contrasts with the bemused, betrayed Philip of the present.
You may buy tickets for The Pride at Trafalgar Studios Whitehall until November 9th