As a queer woman, what can I learn from Kevin Elyot’s 1982, male-focused play and what it says about relationships of both its time – and today?

BY EMILY GARSIDE

As the 25th anniversary production of Coming Clean transfers to the West End, it’s worth considering how different our perspectives on LGBT+ relationships are today.

What should I, as a member of that community, take from this play? As a queer woman and writer, what can I learn from Kevin Elyot’s debut play and what it says about relationships of its time? 

Directed by Adam Spreadbury-Maher’s, this production is the first London revival of the play, which premiered at the Bush Theatre in 1982.

Set in a Kentish Town flat where struggling writer Tony and his partner Grey seem to have the perfect open relationship; Tony is beginning to look for something more like monogamy and it’s here that their different attitudes to love and commitment begin to emerge.

Coming up to their fifth anniversary – and with love “sussed out” – Tony and Grey are in a committed relationship with room for the odd bit of sex on the side, provided that this is restricted to one-night-stands never repeated with the same man nor indulged in the marital home.

But Tony is starting to yearn for something deeper, something more like monogamy. When he finds out that Greg has been having a full-blown affair with their cleaner, Robert, their differing attitudes towards love and commitment become clear. 

“We’ve shared each other round half the gay scene in London!” is one memorable line about the promiscuity of gay men. But is it now a dated portrayl? Or one that the LGBT+ community will look at and find familiar? More importantly what does it say about attitudes to relationships today? 

It’s, characteristically for Elyot, a funny yet touching portrait of gay relationships captured fifteen years after the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1967. 

Elyot is probably best known for My Night With Reg his account of the AIDS crisis as seen from a British perspective. In Coming Clean, instead he has captured a moment before crisis hit – a brief moment of relative freedom; the arrangements of the relationships feeling really quite familiar today. 

As a woman who struggles to find just one person willing to be in a relationship with me (or indeed me them) the idea of juggling many partners seems to me, frankly too much effort.

Personally, I’ve no doubt in anyone’s ability to love multiple people, I do doubt my own organisation and scheduling skills in that department but as an LGBT+ woman I find myself forced to take a step back and ask; against whose standards am I judging relationships? Ones that serve my own community? Or ones that we’ve adopted, even imposed from the dominant heterosexual narrative on how to conduct a relationship?

And I judge myself for the engrained, heteronormative mindset that says it’s one partner as the gold standard. 

Looking at Elyot’s characters, actually what is most heart-wrenching is the idea that not being seen as criminals in the eyes of the law is such progress. And actually how they choose to conduct their relationships beyond that shouldn’t be anyone’s business.

In the play, one of them falls victim to a homophobic attack and while we may have come through AIDS and marriage equality, every LGBT+ person still lives with that fear. That no matter how much we “conform” in our relationship status, there will still be someone waiting to attack, physically or verbally, for showing our love for antoher.

Which makes me ask, why indeed are we trying so hard to fit into that norm? 

That said, Coming Clean reminds me how far we’ve come and how lucky I am as an LGBT+ person to even reflect on those options.

As someone old enough to have seen the marriage debate go from seed to fruition and to straight people campaigning for civil partnerships, this play reminds me how far we’ve come, and how lucky I am to have the freedom to marry whomever I want.

But I think what looking at this play highlights most keenly is the want of that sentence and I’m reminded by this play, that we managed to commit to one another, in whatever form, long before legislation told us we could – and that is both a tragedy and a matter of pride. 

For tickets to Coming Clean, click here.

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