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Review - What it Means

Wilton's Music Hall

Playing until: 28th October 2023

Writer: James Corley

Director: Harry Mackrill

Set and Costume Designer: Justin Arienti

Photo credit: Danny Kaan

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Soon after the New York Stonewall Riots, Harper’s former editor, Merle Miller, was inspired to write an article, “What it means to be a homosexual”, as a response to a homophobic article published by Harpers. Miller’s article and the play written by James Corley serve as important reminders that being closeted was a matter of necessity and almost crucial to one’s survival in a not-so-distant past.

“What it means to be a homosexual” was widely regarded as a pioneering piece of literature and Corley’s play captures Merle’s frustration of the society’s homophobia at the time and the thoughts that propelled him to pen the essay. The writing is poetic, and the audience is provided with a glimpse into Merle’s thoughts and reality, with some external factors such as the distant demonstrations in the background added to the mix. It is important to note that this is largely a monologue by Merle (Richard Cant), which makes up about 70-80 minutes of the 90-minute play. To this end, Cant must be applauded in creating some level of dynamics in his delivery in this convoluted script. However, Merle has the tendency to direct his frustration to the audience, speaking directly to them as he complains about the situation. Unfortunately, this is repeated a bit too frequently and the early humours associated with this quickly fades.

Despite the fact that there are elements of wittiness in the script, complemented by Cant’s animated and flamboyant delivery, the overall play remains rather stagnant and monotonous. Justin Arienti’s set design has quite a few different elements and Cant makes good use them. However, even though Harry Mackrill has attempted to incorporate these added layers and components in the play, the overall production remains stagnant due to a lack of clear change in the mood of the script. The most impactful part of the play comes in the last 10 minutes when the audience is introduced to a boy from Pittsburgh (Cayvan Coates), who is in a state of existential crisis, makes a dramatic entrance and humanises the philosophical narrative.

While this is without a doubt an important piece of historical article, exploring the mindset and motivations of Merle Miller to write the article, this production is very poetic and at times, convoluted, making it difficult to distinguish the rants from the frustration.

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