The title of Jonathan Harvey's new play comes from a Peter Tatchell quote, about how gay people are the canaries in the mine - the way they're treated tells you about a society's attitude to human rights. And so this is a play that follows three connected stories in the sixties, eighties and noughties. Canary also reunites Harvey with Beautiful Thing director Hettie Macdonald (who, lest we forget, also directed "official" best Doctor Who episode ever "Blink," and who I think is often unfairly overlooked for that - Moff fanboy I may be but without a good director "Blink" could easily have been a disaster.) She does a good job of holding together what's a rather sprawling story that's told out of sequence as a sort of puzzle, gay rights in the UK as seen through the eyes of one family and connected, in ways that become apparent, through Mickey (Ben Allen,) a young man dying of AIDS in the '80s strand.
Although at times it shows a rather self-conscious desire to seem epic (an impression in fact best realised by Liz Ashcroft's simple but imposing set) for the most part this is a successful, interesting and quite moving attempt to bring together disparate times in British gay life. So in the '60s we have Tom (Philip McGinley) betraying his lover Billy (Kevin Trainor) to avoid jail, and there's scenes of aversion therapy; in the '00s Tom (now played by Philip Voss) is chief of police, and his past comes to haunt him. Like I say the '80s story fills in the missing pieces through Mickey and Russell (Ryan Sampson in the '80s, Sean Gallagher in the '00s.) Most of the cast also double as several incidental characters, as well as a couple of public figures, and much of the humour that lightens the often dark themes comes from these scenes. So Paula Wilcox gives us a pretty good Margaret Thatcher impression in a scene of very dark comedy, inspired according to the programme notes by real events; while Philip Voss drags up as Mary Whitehouse to reenact the Festival of Light. In the interval the other actors take places in the audience so they can recreate the Gay Liberation Front's protests at that event - we were a couple of seats away from Sampson and Trainor snogging for all they were worth in the row ahead of us so it's nice to have special bonuses like that.
There are a few surreal touches that don't entirely gel, and two scenes set in the present day stuck out - one showing a homophobic murder and another a young gay man who doesn't understand what previous generations had to deal with, and doesn't see HIV as a threat. The scenes themselves, especially the latter, are good, but they're there to connect the story to today and show that not everything in gay life is roses yet - and it shows. They seem like scenes that are there to fulfil that very specific purpose, are a bit cursory and don't feel properly connected to the overall story. But while it's not perfect overall it does what it sets out to and is a satisfying evening of theatre. I went with Jan, the first time he's been my theatre companion and fortunately this wasn't a show to put him off, he said he was glad he saw it and admitted to getting a bit emotional towards the end.
Canary by Jonathan Harvey is booking until the 12th of June at the Hampstead Theatre.