Review by Daz Gale
2024 has started with a new theatre space opening in London. Less than six months after the King’s Head Theatre, the UK’s oldest pub theatre, closed its doors, they have opened up their brand new, larger space next door. Now wheelchair accessible (when the lift works) and boasting a 200-seat theatre, 50-seat cabaret venue, and multiple bars, it is a glittering new addition to the Islington theatre scene which is becoming a destination in itself. For its inaugural production, it is hosting a world premiere befitting for both Kings and Queens… but mostly Queens as modern gay romantic comedy Exhibitionists opens to the public – but would it be a work of art?
Written by Shaun McKenna and Andrew Van Sickle, Exhibitionists begins its story at an exhibition funnily enough as two couples (Connor & Mal, Robbie & Rayyan) explore the works created by their friend and associate O’Dell. Nothing out of the ordinary, you might think – until it transpires Connor and Robbie used to be married to each other. As their intense feelings from the past are brought to the surface, it is their new partners who suffer, trying to knock some sense into them and save their faltering relationships.
Sound familiar? While notes in the programme suggest it is a loving and deliberate tribute to classic romantic comedies and all of the themes that recur in them, it borrows heavily from one classic story – Noel Coward’s Private Lives. Whether the homage to this particular story is intentional remains to be seen – after all, similar stories of ex-couples have existed before that and continue to be made now. The idea of putting a gay twist on that story is genuinely exciting. The problem is how close to that story it veers: (Spoilers from the plot) A divorced couple meet by chance and ditch their new partners, their new partners catch up with them and there’s even a climactic scene where they all sit down for breakfast. The near identical structure left Exhibitionists open for comparison and struggling to carve out its own identity in a story we had seen before.
The themes the show explores had no shortage of potential, with the notion of what it means to be a gay man, masculinity, and differing types of relationships from open ones to monogamous ones all setting up some interesting dialogue. However, these were never fully realised and were more often than not played for laughs in a show that seemed more content with eliciting an easy laugh from the audience rather than furthering the dialogue or plot along.
The writing itself started fairly strongly as the premise was set up rather swiftly and satisfyingly in a pacey and exhilarating first half. The problem then started in the latter half of the play where all of the goodwill that had been built up fell away drastically in confused, inconsistent, and poorly paced scenes which left me feeling as if the script had been finished and there had been no clear idea of how to end the story. Rather predictably, the whole thing descended into farcical territory but instead of feeling natural or comical, it came across as uncomfortable and unnecessary, cheapening a show that I felt deserved better. This is quite a frustrating thing to experience as McKenna and Van Sickle are very clearly talented writers with many a shining moment among the script a highlight. It was the standard of these high points that proved a double-edged sword, showing the weaker moments of the story significantly.
Bronagh Lagan’s direction fared better, managing to draw a consistent quality throughout as the action moved from locations and situations that varied drastically. The choices made through these characters and scenes brought the story to its fullest potential but was still limited by the flaws in the writing. Gregor Donnelly’s set design was fantastically realised, though perhaps not quite right for the space it was in, leaving many a restricted view due to the setup of the new theatre which is very clearly still finding its feet. A special mention must go to Matt Powell’s gorgeous use of video design in the exhibition itself, though the use of live/filmed footage proved problematic on the night.
The hard-working cast of five did the best they could with the material, though navigating characters that proved one-dimensional or changing dramatically limited their choices. Jake Mitchell-Jones deserves credit for an over-the-top and exaggerated emotional portrayal of Mal, which may have felt a bit too stereotypical and insulting in other hands, yet he managed to find the nuance in it. Øystein Lode was a late addition to the story as Sebastian, but ended up being in many a scene-stealing moment in a comedic characterisation which provided light relief in the moments where the story failed to take off. The cast are completed by Ashley D Gayle as Conor, Rolando Montecalvo as Rayyan, and Robert Rees as Robbie, all delivering solid albeit limited performances.
Supporting new work is something I devote a lot of my time to. I always want to be thrilled by new writing and love watching it grow. It is always a joy to watch the birth of something in a small or fringe space go on to take the world by storm with tours, transfers, West End runs, and beyond. This was very much my hope for Exhibitionists and, to an extent, I believe it can get there. This is a story with huge potential, though it still needs to find its own identity and work on being more consistent, with the latter portion of the play needing the most work.
Some may write a two-star review off as being a bad show – I see the opposite. In this show, I see a good show with huge potential that just has some work to do before it can reach the level it deserves to get to. As always, theatre is subjective and what may not have been my cup of tea may be someone else’s. Still, it was lovely being in such a warm and welcoming new place and I look forward to seeing what the King’s Head Theatre exhibits next.
Exhibitionists plays at the King’s Head Theatre until 10th February. Tickets from exhibcomedy.com
Photos by Geraint Lewis