09/11/2013 14:45 GMT | Updated 23/01/2014 10:53 GMT

Theatre Review: Passing By, Tristan Bates Theatre


Passing By at the Tristan Bates Theatre is a little gem of a production that tells the story of a brief affair between two gay men without any clichés or melodrama.

Set in 1970s New York, Simon (James Cartwright) and Toby (Rik Makarem) are two men who have a one-night stand after a brief meeting at a cinema. But when the men both become sick, they are forced to recuperate together in Toby's dishevelled apartment.

Written by Martin Sherman, the play is playful and romantic as we watch these two men open up to each other, their growing affection for the other forcing both men to confront their fears and insecurities. But such a well-written play has not had an easy time.

The first presentation of the play in New York in 1974 was hampered by a lack of actors willing to embrace playing gay men so naturalistically. The first London production in 1976 was more successful - produced by The Gay Sweatshop it had a certain Simon Callow playing Toby.

But as Sherman himself says "the changing times have sometimes been in conflict with the play's sense of innocence." The play was due to have its first full-scale production in New York in 1983 but it was cancelled for fear that the hepatitis that the two men contract in the play would be misconstrued in light of the Aids epidemic.

Yet though this production chose to stay true to the original setting of New York and the 1970s, by side-stepping politics the play has a timeless quality to it. It could just as easily be set in the current day and still be timely, pertinent and relevant.

Indeed part of me was secretly hoping that the setting might have been revisited for this revival but actually I didn't find the decision to keep the play in the 1970s distracting, especially as this wasn't laboured in any part of the production. This wasn't fashioned as a period piece but a play with equal relevance to today's audiences.

There isn't much space in the Tristan Bates Theatre but Director Andrew Keates and Designer Philip Lindley have fashioned in it a run-down studio apartment which makes for a great cramped setting for this couple forced together by circumstances as much as desire.

The result is that the focus remains on the dynamics of this couple who end up sharing so much more than they intended to. There are moments of great humour and genuine tenderness as we watch these two men circle each other and eventually open up emotionally in unexpected ways.

Both actors contribute with strong performances, never once resorting to stereotyping their characters. Both James Cartwright and Rik Makarem bring variety and depth to their roles. Their performances are completely convincing and empathetic.

A heartfelt portrayal of a sensitive but complicated romantic encounter.

Tristan Bates Theatre, London

To November 30, 2013