Wednesday, 1 November 2017

Review Quaint Honour

Peter Barker enjoys a fine revival of a little known play pleading for the acceptance of gay relationships a decade before the decriminalization of homosexuality.

Quaint Honour
by Roger Gellert

Against All The Rules

Quaint Honour, in the first revival more than half a century after its first performance,  is a chance to see a play that championed an argument for gay equality at a time when homosexuality was still illegal in Britain. 

Set in an English boys’ boarding school in the 1950s,  Tully is a house prefect, a liberal-minded atheist who secretly sleeps  with willing fellow pupils, among them the younger Turner. 

Turner challenges Tully to seduce another boy, the studious and naive Hamilton. Yet the relationship,  beginning during an audition for a part in a Shakespeare play where the seduction by the duplicitous Richard III of Lady Anne Neville is the audition piece, turns to genuine love.

At the moment, Quaint Honour, written in 1958, is given, superficially, a topicality by the recent swirl of sexual scandals. 

It  deals with gay relationships in a school where fagging by junior boys, younger schoolboys acting as personal servants for senior pupils, was still part of the school hierarchy. However, this is definitely not a play about the abuse of power. Nor does it advocate lowering the age of consent. 

It is instead a passionate plea for the common sense of equality.

In the wake of the Wolfenden Report recommending the decriminalisation of "homosexual behaviour between consenting adults in private", the theatre censor, the Lord Chamberlain had relaxed the rules on stage portrayals of homosexuals in 1958. 

However Quaint Honour, staged the same year,with its overt sympathy for gay men and homosexual sexual relations, was still deemed too explicit, whilst still remaining a play where homosexuality was a problem. 

It could only be  presented at a subscription club theatre, the Arts Theatre Private Club, as a private performance, therefore avoiding the need for a Lord Chamberlain's licence.

The moniker Roger Gellert was itself the pen name of BBC radio announcer John Holstrom, later a script reader for legendary literary agent Peggy Ramsay. He was also a Royal Shakespeare Company dramaturg and translator of Bertolt Brecht and Jean Giradoux, as well as New Statesman theatre critic. 

Quaint Honour was his only original play and groundbreaking in many ways. Notwithstanding, Gellert's characters remain cyphers, even if used to argue passionately for sex and love with a consenting partner to be the prerogative of the individual conscience

Nevertheless director Christian Durham has assembled a strong cast.

Harley Viveash gives Tully both charisma and maturity, all of which makes the character’s eloquent argument for the right to a homosexual relationship a passionate and inspiring moment.

Simon Butteriss as the hopelessly out-of-touch housemaster Hallowes is a perfect fit for a tweed suit and master’s gown.

Equally, Oliver Gully's heterosexual head boy of house to Tully's deputy looks like a man who will one day be on  a cigarette card as the England opening bat, his intense gaze conveying both firmness and narrowness of mind.

In the roles of the younger boys, Jack Archer as  Hamilton and Jacques Miche as Turner give able support.

Designer Tim McQuillen-Wright cleverly reuses the set of the play running alongside it this season, an ecclesiastical office setting turned into a public school complete with battered bookcases  and paint-chipped radiator.

Quaint Honour was both hugely daring and attracted establishment critical acclaim from The Observer and The Times drama critics. It is  a period piece, but also attempts to normalise the reciprocal homosexual relationship. It's an amber/green light for a fascinating landmark drama. 

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