Tuesday, 8 August 2017

EDINBURGH FRINGE REVIEW: 5 Guys Chillin’ at the Assembly Roxy

Between runs at London’s King’s Head and across three continents, 5 Guys Chillin’ is back for its second Fringe. The set up of the piece is as expected; five guys arrive to ‘chill’, take drugs, and have sex. The night takes a darker turn, though, as the thin veneer comes away and we see what lies beneath.

The cast of five – David Palmstrom, Gareth Watkins, George Bull, George Fletcher and Tom Ratcliffe – portray a cross section of ‘gay scene’ tropes. They are an energetic bunch, who take the bull wholeheartedly by the horns. Plates of white powders litter the stage, a dildo is tossed about, jockstraps are worn and there is plenty of bare muscle on show. Sometimes the acting leans towards the demonstrative, but Tom Ratcliffe stands out with a sensitive, endearing and nuanced performance. There is good work, too, from David Palmstrom’s host.

Writer-director Peter Darney constructed the piece out of 50 hours of interviews, apparently conducted with men found through Grindr. Using their stories, he compressed and combined to construct the script – so it’s verbatim… ish. The guys compete with accounts of past conquests, parties and horror stories. It is certainly commendable in its efforts to present these narratives in such an unapologetic way; from conversations dealing with the LGBT community’s issues with racism, commitment-phobia and, of course, drugs, it is gratifying to see. It also gives insight into the reasons people may attend chills; for one ‘it’s not necessarily about sex; it’s about relaxation’ although this character quickly follows it up by also declaring it ‘the ultimate in interactive porn.’ 

There is something missing, though. The actual narrative of the piece is light on the ground, with the overlong piece meandering into monologue after monologue, seemingly determined to flatly shock the audience more each time. This becomes hollow and abrasive, and leaves a total void of hope at the end of the evening. It feels as though some of the detail may have slipped over time with this production; some of the physical work is generalised and there isn’t enough listening going on between the performers. 

Frustratingly, it seems somewhat reductive to me to insist on packaging the many important and poignant issues in the way this production does; do queer narratives have to be couched in unconvincingly simulated sex and scantily clad, muscle bound guys in underwear? It is also problematic that although the HIV+ characters are largely well drawn, we still insist on having to prove their victimhood, as if the purportedly ‘innocent victims’ are more deserving of our empathy.

What is clearly rendered, permeating the piece, are these five guys’ – and, by extension, many queer people’s – desperate cries for connection in a world that still fails to make it attainable. 5 Guys Chillin’, which superficially promises a fun and frivolous night of theatre is in fact much darker; a scarily relevant indictment of the state of the gay community. In the words of one of the characters, ‘All I see is a lot of pain.’

Review by James Andrews 

Rating: ★★★
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