Last week, I returned to a role for the third time as the revival of Coming Clean, written by the late Kevin Elyot, opened at the Trafalgar Studios in the West End.
Set in a Kentish Town flat in the 1980s, the play follows my character Tony’s relationship with Greg, his partner of five years, and how they deal with the complexities of a gay relationship. Our revival first ran at the King’s Head Theatre in 2017.
When I was offered the role for the third time, there was apprehension alongside the excitement. It’s a very intense emotional journey for the character – it takes a huge amount of preparation and I was concerned I had uncovered all I could.
I couldn’t have been more wrong. I’m a year older. I have more life to bring to the role. Every time I play him, it gets richer because, even though I haven’t been doing the play for a year, it’s still under my skin and when I come back to the text, it takes a very different perspective. Tony is a sensitive, complex and rather fragile character, so it takes a lot of digging.
‘As actors, we cling on to the laughter and the audience’s reaction. It’s an intense space and you feel the audience coming along with you’
Though it felt like we picked up right where we left off with the incredible cast, it was somewhat frustrating getting it back in the rehearsal room. Having performed it on stage, to a sold-out audience night after night, to huge acclaim, getting it back in a bare rehearsal space with no props, no set, coffee, cigarettes or hairspray was the hard part. To put the play in front of an audience and then take them away again is rather odd. As actors, we cling on to the laughter and the audience’s reaction. It’s an intense space and you feel the audience coming along with you.
But it was a good lesson for me as an actor, because of course I needed the rehearsal. I needed that safe space to re-explore. But once we got back into Trafalgar Studios, it all came flooding back.
Coming Clean was Elyot’s debut play. Written and performed in 1982, it received huge acclaim and won the Samuel Beckett Award. But it was written in less liberal times: with homosexuality only having been partially decriminalised in 1967, the play wasn’t as palatable to the mainstream so it went under the radar.
It was also written shortly before the Aids crisis, so it would have been extremely insensitive to revive this piece before plays like Angels in America or Elyot’s most famous piece My Night With Reg had hit the stage.
But increasingly audiences are realising this piece has a vital place in our theatre history now more than ever. As Matthew Lopez’s heartbreaking play The Inheritance asked us: “How can we understand our future if we don’t understand our past?”
Elyot’s writing is hilariously and emotionally gut-wrenching, and a joy for an actor. He understands astutely how couples interact to an alarmingly accurate level – a gift for those who play his characters.
The playwright isn’t afraid to tackle the complex issues of sex, love, infidelity, heartbreak, belonging, co-dependency and all the things that we humans struggle with throughout our lives. He holds up a mirror to us all. And having the chance to return to one of his characters again and again has allowed me to explore parts of myself as an actor that I might otherwise not have had the opportunity to discover.