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Guest Review by Anna Savva of Passing By by Martin Sherman at Tristan Bates Theatre

Posted by Steve_Barfield
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on Thursday, 14 November 2013

Anna Savva

4 stars 

Venue: Tristan Bates Theatre, 1A Tower St, Covent Garden WC2H 9NP

Tues 5- Sat 30 Nov. Tue-Sat, 7.30pm & Sun, 3pm. Tickets £14 / £12 concessions

Web site revival show at the Tristan Bates Theatre is a romantic tragi-comedy about a fleeting love affair between two men on-the-make in 1970’s New York. Ground breaking in it's day for the unapologetic portrayal of the domestic normalcy of a homosexual relationship, there is much in this new production which still captivates – even if notion of the characters' sexuality lending a radical sheen to the action now seems a tad outmoded.

Written in the mid ‘70s by the multi-award winning play write Martin Sherman, much of the play's emotional punch has to do with the universality of the story and its delicate evocation of the era in which it is set.


Figure 1. James Cartwright as Simon and Rik Makarem as Toby. Credit Scott Rylander.

The plot follows the burgeoning relationship between fast living midnight cowboy and aspiring sports star Simon, James Cartwright, and Toby, a neurotic hypochondriac artist played by Rik Makarem. Set entirely within the confines of Toby's grimy bedsit, the audience are invited to play fly on the wall to the various sexual trysts between this unlikely pairing, following the characters as their relationship develops, falters and finally disintegrates when Toby leaves New York for France.

As with many revivals, there is a fear that the writing will have become stale in the intervening years, but it is written with such verve, timeless humour and unexpected poignancy that by the end you'll barely notice you've sat through a straight 90 minute run. For this is no predictable romance, it is a bitter sweet tale about two people drawn together first out of lust, then from necessity and kinship rather than love. And the juncture at which they meet is also the moment they must soon enviably depart in pursuit of their own dreams. Love, often tragically ephemeral, in this case doesn't even get a shot and is merely 'Passing By'.

Just like their love, both characters are full of flaws which are deftly drawn with tenderness and charm under the direction of Andrew Keates. The smallness of the Bates theatre lends itself well to the intimacy of the performance. It adds so much more to be able to see the sweat on an actor's brow, the emotion in their eyes and sincere investment in the part. Yet in such a small space it is equally easy to overplay, and at times there is the sense the actors lacked on stage chemistry and lost some of the subtlety of emotion as they flitted between individual and joint scenes.

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Figure 2. James Cartwright as Simon and Rik Makarem as Toby. Credit Scott Rylander.

Even with this small criticism both James Cartwright and Rik Makarem give the performances their all, with the bumbling dialogue between them reminiscent of comedic flavour of the original  odd couple – although in this case they are gay. Again, this also the only place the production lets the writing down, in places the comedic value is overplayed by both actors. Comedy ought to heighten the overarching pathos of a love story, not paint over it. It is, of course, a hard balance to maintain, and much of the play was acted with the heart and the tenderness the story deserves. When the two lovers come together after developing Hepatitis, forcing them to convalesce and spend time together, it is in these quieter moments that the tenderness and normalcy of compassionate love burgeons from the well of their shared suffering. It is these moments which truly elevate the play and give it it's heart.

Passing By is a charming addition to the scene this season. Well worth a watch on a cold Autumn evening, this delicate little play will leave you feeling warm inside. When so much in London is dominated by the bombast of bigger shows, the intimacy of small theatre effects style a different, more vital style of acting not to be missed.

Long may revivals of this nature flourish.

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