Review by Harry Bower
Five years after off-broadway smash hit Afterglow made its first leap across the pond and was met with a lukewarm critical reception, the notoriously naked expose of open relationships and polyamory is back, and it’s grittier and sexier than ever. In the programme, writer S. Asher Gelman notes that this production brings together many of the original contributors to the original run, plus some new creative minds to ‘enrich’ the Afterglow experience for London. It certainly feels like a second bite at the cherry; a chance to show London audiences what perhaps they missed out on in the original transfer. Fortunately for London – this latest production lives up to its creators promise.
There is an elephant in the room for anyone who might hear about Afterglow, or be encouraged to see it in this run. The cast of three men are naked, for much of the one hundred minute run time. There – it’s out in the open, nice and early. Which is exactly what happens in the show; nudity is never used gratuitously but is embedded into the very real and grounded relationships being played out on-stage. The nudity is synonymous with the honesty and vulnerability of these characters; a constant reminder that there is nowhere to hide.
Alex and Josh are married, in their thirties, and in the process of having a baby together. Josh the energetic creative type comes from money which allows him to pursue a job he loves, working in theatre. Alex is more stoic, a biology student consumed by his work and reluctant to give Josh the attention he craves. They confidently assert to themselves and to others with an air of superiority that their open relationship is rosy, and allows each to be fulfilled without harming their own marriage. When an online hookup, a wide-eyed Darius, joins their bed, the play begins, and relationships strain under the weight of emotion and love. Darius and Josh fall for each other and you can probably guess what transpires.
Gelman’s writing stye is spectacularly normal. Dialogue is naturalistic, wit and sarcasm is woven into every scene, and relationships are full of nuance and depth. The plot feels realistic and grounded, and the character arcs compelling. The piece doesn’t rely on gay stereotypes, nor does it dwell on the more challenging aspects of queer life in society; there is, for example, no depiction of homophobia. Some choices feel a bit heavy handed and the ending is made predictable by an exchange about movie plots midway through, but these seem like minor complaints when the overall picture is so well executed.
One of the best things about Southwark Playhouse is the versatility of their spaces. The Large in Borough for Afterglow has been completely transformed, with a thrust cube shaped design Ann Beyersdorfer which offers something new at almost every turn, accompanied by a lighting design by Jamie Roderick which feels sexy but not seedy, atmospheric but not overtly dramatic. Water is used to brilliant effect, and the versatility of the staging is exploited with some clever and well-executed movements, choreographed sensitively and intelligently. Such movement overcomes any challenges that might be present trying to depict the most intimate of scenes.
The performances of Victor Hugo (Alex), Peter McPherson (Josh) and James Nicholson (Darius) are outstanding. Collectively they explore the entire range of human emotion. To pull off performances this strong in a piece which requires you to be fully nude for entire sequences, surrounded on all sides by audience and mirrors, is extremely impressive – and huge credit should be given to Lee Crowley for their intimacy direction. The trio of performers each carve out the space for one another to shine, and make their respective characters likable and charming; it’s easy to see how they would lure each other in. Victor Hugo brings a sense of calm assuredness and maturity to his Alex, restrained and repressed somewhat, fuelled by genuine love and care for his partner. Hugo’s eyes glisten with excitement, nervousness, and disappointment. Peter McPherson’s Josh is an infectiously charismatic leader of conversation, a dominant spirit in any room. As Darius, James Nicholson is adorably naïve and fresh-faced. Nicholson’s subtle skill is in his comic timing, delivering the perfect blank look or body movement which prompts titters in the stalls.
Afterglow is a captivating relationship drama. It has laugh out loud moments which are understated and catch you off guard, and a set dripping in expensive Manhattan glamour. There are outstanding performances by a trio of performers with exceptional talent, put to use telling a story about an undeniably underrepresented form of relationship. With a huge amount of creative flair on display it is finally clear to London why New York audiences raved so much about this play. Some people might come for the nudity, but they’ll stay for the meaningful and heartfelt relationships which deliver an important if not unsurprising message.
Afterglow plays at Southwark Playhouse (Borough) until Saturday 10 February 2024. For more information and tickets visit https://southwarkplayhouse.co.uk/productions/afterglow/
Photos by The Other Richard