Review by Raphael Kohn
As soon as writer-actor Josh Maughan arrives on stage in this play’s opening moment, eyes bright with energy and exuding nervous excitement, there’s a real sense of urgency. It’s fair to say that this play, focussed on the queer liberation movement of the 1970s in London, is a timely one, with parallels of the gay rights movement of then and the trans rights movement of now becoming ever more urgent. Maughan is aware of this – and his new play is a touching, charming tribute to the trailblazers of the movement.
But it isn’t all politics. At its heart, this is a play about romance, a sweet, seductively heartwarming rom-com that ultimately is a gentle and touching tale. We meet our protagonists, Andy and Ben, as they cross paths in their first lecture of university in 1971. Perhaps drawing a touch too much on ‘enemies-turned-lovers’ motifs, their initial frosty exchanges turn to much warmer encounters before long, as they discover their sexualities and desires in parallel.
All rom-coms need good leads to root for, and Our 1972 certainly has this in spades. Maughan, starring as Andy as well as having written the play, is shy, quiet and understated, while his cricket-playing lover Ben is… well, the opposite. Perhaps the two of them deserve slightly more characterisation – there’s a risk at times of them losing dimension – but they are performed with charm and passion by Maughan and his co-star Peter Hadfield.
And so, we see Andy and Ben as their relationship develops against a political backdrop of change, progress and resistance. Joining the Gay Liberation Front (GLF), they find themselves drawn into a world of activism as they become engrained in the planning process of Pride (yes, the first Pride). Although the script sometimes seems to take a few liberties with the historical matter, it’s generally historically-informed, serving a nice blend of entertainment and education.
Of course, it is at its heart a comedy, and a comedy with heart as well as humour. Yes, there are typical moments you might expect of light-hearted humour revolving around being surreptitious with one’s queer expression, hiding a relationship and learning more about one’s sexuality, but it’s more than that. Moments of Ben’s character development especially are written with so much heart that it’s really rather difficult to leave the theatre having not shed a tear.
Indeed, Maughan structures his piece well, giving us snapshots of their relationship as it progresses throughout the year of university, framed with songs which unite the two protagonists’ common love of music. It's not all plain sailing, with a strange bit of audience participation thrown in that doesn’t work and some slightly oddly manufactured tension in the story that confuses more than anything else, but it is overall a rather charming work.
Director Joshua Dowden takes a few great approaches to the text – his use of projection to ground the historical context is overall excellent with a brilliant moment of video projection and sound design (co-designed with Kirsty Yeung) to emulate a truly uncomfortable moment in the story being a real stand-out that shows just how powerful this play could be. Overall, though, he sensibly leaves the bulk of the work to the two lead performers’ naturally awkward, pretty adorable chemistry.And it’s great.
Perhaps it’s not quite finished yet, but indeed I really saw this as a developmental performance – a showcase of Maughan’s intentions with the piece and potential future life for it. And I really can’t wait to see what he does with it next – this is a beautiful, touching rom-com that really deserves to be in a much larger Off-West End venue once its writing and production issues are ironed out. And when it does, you can bet I’ll be the first to buy a ticket.
Our 1972 plays at the Hope Theatre, Islington, until 6th January 2024. Tickets available from https://www.thehopetheatre.com/productions/our-1972/