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The Back Room

Bodies for hire

Corinna Lotz reviews a new version of The Backroom, staged in a pub in Kilburn 3 stars

There’s a big slice of every-day London life in Good Night Out Presents’ latest offering. One of the capital’s most exciting fringe theatre companies, it is staging Adrian Pagan’s 1996 award-winning play The Backroom in the suitably rough and tumble Cock Tavern theatre in Kilburn High Road.

In an inspired piece of set design, the pub’s function space is reconfigured into a room in an Earl’s Court house. The real window opening out onto a real balcony overlooking the high street offers the only escape for the inmates imprisoned by their need to sell their sexual services.The audience finds itself transformed into punters ogling the human merchandise in a gay knocking shop. Shades of Toulouse-Lautrec’s Parisian brothels – gender reversed.

The Back Room
Craig (Neil Cunningham) & Madonna (Will Stokes)

First performed at the Bush Theatre in July 1999, The Backroom was an instant hit. In this new production, the cultural references have been updated: Britney Spears and Jade Goody’s wedding are now part of the scene. Britney is a gay icon for peroxide-blond Craig from Down Under, (Neil Cunningham) and the hyperactive, neurotic Spanish-Polish Madonna (Will Stokes) – as they prance coquettishly, miming her performances in front of the TV.

There was no problem in updating Pagan’s references to Thatcher. She is seamlessly transformed into Blair. If anything, the political jibes are more true now than they were then. “Madam” Gary advises new boy Charlie (Daniel Sharman) about his next punter: “He’s a right wing MP. So you know, obey.” Charlie asks: “Tory or Labour?”

And when deputy-madam, the preening Dallas (Benedict Fogarty), dishes out advice to no-hoper, drug addict Paul (Michael Parr), Dallas drawls: “What my advice to you is that it’s the versatile boys what get the work. That’s all I’m saying. Capitalist market economy. Blairite supply and demand. It’s only companies what produce the goods the market wants what survive. Think about it.”

The Back Room
Right: Dallas (Benedict Fogarty)

Pagan’s play is a dive into the deep end of gay existence. The language, the humour, the action doesn’t pull any punches about the harsh realities of male prostitution. The all-too-human predicament of six young “working men” and their male madam, Gary soon becomes evident. Gary (David Paisley) announces each new punter and periodically (but ineffectually) reads the riot act to his outrageously misbehaving workforce.

It’s lightning-quick repartee and farcical comedy all around as the cast morph from human bodies to be hired out for use and abuse, into our fellow creatures, our brothers, to paraphrase Baudelaire.

The Back Room
Gary (David Paisley) & Charlie (Daniel Sharman)

A common denominator has brought these guys together – the need for quick cash in a world of few options. Ex-soldier Paul has a massive debt on his MasterCard and a child to support. The eldest, Sandy (movingly played by Miles Mlambo) is swatting for exams in an effort to escape poverty.

Top dog Dallas claims that he is a male model only increasing his earnings with a bit of prostitution on the side. Willowy newcomer Charlie misleads the others with lies and half-truths about who he is and why he is so badly off.

The Back Room
Charlie (Daniel Sharman) & Sandy (Miles Mlambo)

Behind the explicit sexual humour, the camp clowning and wonderful insults such as “that’s the nuclear power station calling the pedal bin filthy”, there are tragic personal moments. Each character is in a frustrated search of real love and a steady relationship. So, when the needy Sandy is given the brush-off by the supercilious public schoolboy Charlie, we really do feel for him. Even chief pimp Gary cannot escape from the need to please and hold on to his lover.

The Backroom is a claustrophobic hothouse of rivalries and sexual tension. Director Gareth Corke, the cast together with a talented team of stage designers and coaches, have brought to life a revealing and tender script.

The Backroom is at the Cock Tavern Theatre, 125 Kilburn High Road, Tuesday to Saturday until April 11. 0844 4477 1000 Now extended to May 2

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