The Twentieth Century Way review at Jermyn Street, London – ‘smoothly performed’

Fraser Wall and James Sindall in The Twentieth Century Way at Jermyn Street Theatre, London
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The Twentieth Century Way is a euphemism for a blow-job, something which had risen in popularity with the onset of better public hygiene and the convenience of the new zip-fastener.

In 1914, the Long Beach police department hire two actors to entrap gay men at public baths and toilets, paying $15 a head for their trouble. It proves a lucrative venture, resulting in legislation criminalising the blow-job in the state of California that remains to this day.

Tom Jacobson’s play uses a meeting between two actors waiting for an audition as a vehicle to explore an early example of police entrapment. Locking horns when up for the same role, Mr Warren suggests an improvisational duel with Mr Brown, the loser of which leaves the studio. Rising to the challenge, the couple blur the line between reality and their own fiction as one of the darker chapters in the history of gay rights unfolds.

Jacobson’s play fuses documentary with drama, exploring a pattern of gay behaviour at a period where old-world morality clashed with the onset of modernism. It’s an often engaging conceit, dovetailing the masks that an actor wears with those that gay men had to adopt to conform with society. Marylynne Anderson-Cooper’s careful direction ensures that the changes of tone and mood within the rather convoluted narrative are clear and concise. Fraser Wall as Brown and James Sindall as Warren move between the vast number of characters seamlessly yet amid the form and content, it’s very difficult to see the heart of this production.

Slick, tightly structured, smoothly performed, but oddly soulless documentary drama