Tom Stuart’s affecting and funny new play, written in response to playing Christopher Marlowe’s doomed king, a role he’s concurrently performing in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, is a neat conceit.
Stuart plays an actor with an identity crisis who drops in from the ceiling, partially clad in his Edward costume. Then Gertrude Stein (Annette Badland) scuttles in on a toilet with castors, Richard Cant’s supremely arch Quentin Crisp descends on a swing and an upbeat Harvey Milk (Polly Frame, brilliantly energetic) bounds in from the auditorium. Margaret Thatcher (Sanchia McCormack) breaks in to boom about Section 28 and a truculent Judy Garland gobs on the actor from the gallery.
We’re in the actor’s psyche, where performance is bound up with the personal, and each historical figure offers their own take on gay identity. For Stuart, troubling feelings about his own sexuality have been stirred up by the role of Edward. Gaveston (Beru Tessema) appears in the form of an ex-lover, while Jonathan Livingstone is a syntactically-confused comic triumph as Renaissance actor Edward Alleyn, relaying his own historically representative views on sodomy and selfhood.
Though the work starts off a little slowly, straining for laughs, it quickly develops into a compelling study of inherited shame and self-hatred, the legacy of a 1980s childhood beset by bullying and homophobia.
Though deeply personal, it never feels indulgent – Stuart is such an endearing presence, wittily checking his white privilege while laying bare his “broken” core and offering an irrepressibly hopeful musical denouement.