Simon Ward reviews Undetectable at The King’s Head Theatre
As we enter the room our two protagonists are already ensconced under a frankly hideous purple duvet beneath a colour-changing globe light and a thumping soundtrack. This makes the regular, and of course very worthy, funding pitch from the King’s Head team just a little more awkward than usual. However, once proceedings get under way all eyes and thoughts are on Bradley (Lewis Brown) and Lex (Freddie Hogan). Both actors are extraordinary – not a beat is missed in a fast and furious 75 minutes of barely-clothed banter, recrimination, reconciliation and ultimately, perhaps, redemption. The same team premiered the play for its run this time last year, and it has a slickness and polish as a result.
The show reminds us that the freedom to have sex with whoever you like, however you like, is necessary, but not sufficient, when you are looking for intimacy and a connection that maybe you can build a life around. Bradley and Lex have been circling around each other for 3 months as the play begins, and tonight just might be THE night – Lex certainly hopes so, but Bradley is still not sure.
Over the course of the next hour the men circle around each other, or on top of each other, over and under the duvet, naked and clothed, half-in or half-out. They strip back the layers of assumptions and baggage to try to see each other as they truly are.
Lex sees Bradley as more comfortable in his queer identity, cool and funny, maybe just stringing along an unsophisticated out-of-towner. Bradley sees Lex as a hot hunk, a twink, who could get any man he likes – so why has he picked on him – is it just another notch on his bedpost? The quick-fire bickering between the two goes round in circles as more obstacles are put in the way of sex, only to be knocked back. Lex thinks they have no condoms but that’s OK because he’s prepping and Bradley’s undetectable – in fact Bradley’s bag is full of condoms, that’s not the real problem.
In order to get out of the impasse, the couple have to work through their fears and their painful memories of previous encounters – bullying, rape, violence – in an extended drug-fuelled flashback/fantasy sequence. This is expertly choreographed under the direction of Rikki Beadle-Blair as each relive often horrendous experiences in a series of vignettes – Lex, formerly Alexis, reverting to his native Scouse as he recalls his struggles to be accepted; Bradley reliving moments in his past when sex was anything but intimate or loving. Disturbing as this is, it does seem to have a cathartic effect and as the lights go out the men jump back under the duvet, finally ready to expose themselves to each other, literally and metaphorically.
This is obviously a queer play, firmly and confidently located in a world of gay slang. You may find yourself Googling some of the words, not least the significance of the play’s title. Nevertheless the themes are universal. More than once I was reminded of On Chesil Beach where Ian McEwan explores similar themes around mutual misunderstandings and assumptions, with worse consequences than here. The central fear of the play – that sex may lead to heartbreak and disappointment rather than pleasure, fun and maybe even love — is something both a gay and straight audience can relate to. And of course the whole question of consent could hardly be more topical.
The central performances are charming, bitchiness and banter notwithstanding, and we share their joy and relief when they break down the barriers and can finally slide under the covers.
Undetectable is running at the King’s Head Theatre, Upper Street, Islington until 7th March.