Imagine: after a night on the town and a fair few drinks, you bring home your prospective lover for some sexytime and who pops into the room but your dad. Who sits with you. Makes conversation. Makes sex jokes. And doesn’t get the hint to leave.
That cringeworthy awkwardness is the worst nightmare of many young people, no matter what their sexuality. Yet in his Australian comedy The Sum of Us (later made into a film starring Russell Crowe), playwright David Stevens unusually tackles homosexuality from the point of view of a totally accepting father. When so many parents have difficulty accepting the sexuality of their children, it’s refreshing – almost disconcertingly so – to meet a parent so open and comfortable with homosexuality. And when so much LGBTQ theatre focuses on tragic relationships and issues of identity, The Sum of Us is a warm, amusing and above all progressive counterpoint. And all this from a play written in 1990!
Yet this is a play all about being comfortable and open in yourself. After the death of his wife, widower Harry (Stephen Connery-Brown) lives alone with his gay son Jeff (Tim McFarland). Their world is a sort of domestic utopia, their cosy house (designed in detail by David Shields) a home free of secrets or shame. Through naturalistic Aussie dialogue, Stevens conveys a perfect father-son relationship that’s tenderly played by the two lead actors under the assured direction of Gene David Kirk. Sure, they may bicker, but it’s truly heartwarming to see the love between them, in their shared history and mutual acceptance and understanding.
For the audience it’s a pleasurable wonder, but for the play’s outsiders it’s all too much. When Jeff brings home Greg (Rory Hawkins), the father-son relationship represents everything Greg doesn’t have. The overwhelming warmth is too much to bear. For Joyce (Annabel Pemberton), a woman Harry meets through a dating hotline, homosexuality is an alien world she simply doesn’t understand. It’s easy to take a misogynist view and see Joyce as a villainous character, but Harry’s love towards her is all too easily dropped, only serving to highlight the strength of his bond with Jeff. Perhaps, though, there is such a thing as being too perfect.
The overall tone, though, is light-hearted and comic. Much of this comes from direct addresses and inner-monologues from the characters, which at times feels overly theatrical and purposefully played for laughs, somewhat at odds with the naturalistic feel of the play and the way it normalises homosexuality. That said, these addresses do serve a purpose in the play’s final and tragic scene, allowing for a surprising amount of comedy and truth. After all, this is a piece of theatre, not a soap opera.
In fact, it’s the final scene that’s crucial to the play’s message. Throughout the play are speeches about living in the moment, not waiting for tomorrow, making the most of life (an understandable subject after the death of a wife/mother). Yet the play’s tragic final twist puts this theme into sharp perspective, owing predominantly to Conner-Brown’s delicate performance as Harry. Ultimately there are far greater concerns in life than sexuality. And that’s as true now as it was in 1990.
Watch: The Sum of Us runs at the Above The Stag Theatre until 4th October.
Photos: Pics by Gaz