When Mart Crowley’s play The Boys in the Band opened off-Broadway in 1968, gay liberation was yet to happen - but less than a year later, while the play was still enjoying its lengthy run, the Stonewall Riots occurred. Crowley’s play, now largely viewed as a historical document, represented a pivotal moment in gay culture: it was the first play to openly represent gay lives - and in unsparing, brutal detail; indeed, it was considered so powerful that some claim it was a even a catalyst to the riots.

Certainly, the tensions which Crowley explores in the drama were those which finally boiled over on that night in 1969 when drag queens took on the police at the Stonewall Inn in New York’s Christopher Street. Crowley’s play is set on one evening at the birthday party of Harold. Put nine gay men in a room together, throw in a free bar, and the scene is set for a first-class bitch-fest - and a particularly lethal drinking game.

This rarely performed piece is considered a bit of a curiosity now. We are, after all, living in the age of equal marriage, a world away from the kind of internalized homophobia depicted in Boys in the Band - allegedly. However, director Ian Hallard’s fast-paced revival shows that Crowley’s themes remain as relevant as ever.

As Harold - a self-proclaimed “32-year-old, ugly, pockmarked Jew fairy” - Mark Gatiss is pretty much a carbon-copy of Leonard Frey in the original off-Broadway production and subsequent filmed version - which makes him absolutely perfect. Arriving late for his party, he proceeds to dominate the room with his acidic one-liners and brooding presence. It’s a tour de force performance.

Gatiss’ real-life husband Ian Hallard plays the party’s host, Michael. Consumed with self-hatred and defining Catholic guilt, he becomes increasingly inebriated and vicious as the evening draws on.

The performances are universally excellent, however, James Holmes - as the effeminate Emory - is particularly moving as he reveals his unrequited love for a straight boy he was at school with. It’s a blistering portrait of the pain which so often lurks beneath the facade of the ‘camp clown.' 

The Boys in the Band on stage.

Were gay men really so vile to one another? Is the world explored in Boys in the Band really that far away from the way gay men treat themselves and each other today? The two are probably much closer than many of us would like to think. Substitute the booze for a rampant Chem Sex session that goes wrong (do any of them go right?), and you’ve perhaps got a 21st century Boys in the Band. This timely revival reminds us we’ve got a long way to go. 

The Boys in The Band tours the UK this November in Manchester, Brighton, and Leeds.  For full details see 


Review:  Alex Hopkins
Images:  Darren Bell





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