Theatre Critic and Journalist

Review: Canary, Hampstead Theatre

Review: Canary, Hampstead Theatre

Well, here’s an opportunity missed. Canary is a brilliantly swirling, expansive and epic text that owes a great debt (perhaps too great a debt) to Tony Kushner’s Angels in America. Sadly, Hettie MacDonald’s production never tackles Jonathan Harvey’s play head on. It’s not that she’s misdirected the piece. Within her chosen style Macdonald has unravelled its complexities and told a byzantine time-and-space hopping narrative with admirable clarity. She’s given room to its history lesson without losing the determined outrage beneath. By doing just that, however, she has entirely bottled it.

Canary is a marble cake of flashbacks and fantasies stemming from the outing of Tom, the broad-shouldered chief of police now camped up at home with his wife, daughter and flamboyant face-off-t’-tele Russell. Outside the press are parked with flashbulbs poised. Fifty years of the past materialises in his living room: Tom’s teenage relationship with Billy in 1960’s Liverpool; Billy’s subsequent ‘treatment’ for homosexuality and campaigning with the Gay Liberation Front; Mary Whitehouse, miner’s strikes and Maggie Thatcher; Russell’s friendship with Tom’s AIDs-infected son; the deathbed reunion of father and son and, finally, the re-cultivation of Tom’s relationship with Billy, now incarcerated following his revenge on the doctor that administered his aversion therapy. The overshot is testimony to increased tolerance and its price, but also a warning against camp complacency. Harvey’s point is that, in spite of Section 28’s repeal, equal ages of consent and civil partnerships, there’s still work to be done.

It’s a choppy sea of scenes that crash into one another, overlapping and (super)imposing as if the timeline has flattened into simultaneity. Harvey compresses a hectic half-century with the strength of a car-crusher, leaving a dense bundle of contrasting attitudes and events.

MacDonald’s response to all this is to untangle. She tidies, sorting the individual threads into their own distinct space and labelling them clearly by upping the playing style to enable differentiation. The action of the past is dragged up to Beano-esque broadness to circumnavigate Harvey’s lampooning of Mary Whitehouse, played like Mrs Doubtfire by Phillip Voss, and Margaret Thatcher. It’s as if MacDonald can’t stomach mess and so refuses to allow a clash of playing styles. Where she juxtaposes two scenes, she sits them snugly side by side, as if for comparison. They never disrupt one another or do battle. Really, the whole spectrum needs to exist throughout as a cacophony, scenes clattering off each other like billiards balls.

Put another way, it’s all far, far too British. MacDonald’s direction is polite: all is done in reverend care of us. She guides us by the hand through what is a jagged, thorny knot – attempting to suggest location where she needn’t, spelling out the issues and wearing the moral indignation too showily. In doing so, she denies Harvey’s text its scale; she wimps out of its challenge (to both practitioner and spectator). That’s not to say that Canary is scuppered. It’s just not enough.

Photograph: Tristram Kenton

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