Following a revival in 2017 at the King’s Head Theatre, Kevin Elyot’s Coming Clean transfers to the Trafalgar Studios 29 years after its premiere. Daniel Perks reviews the late playwright’s debut work.

On the surface, Kevin Elyot’s premier work is a tangled mess. The British playwright, most famous for My Night With Reg and Clapham Junction, overstuffs his script with quips, retorts and observational remarks. There is a desperation to Coming Clean – the text craves attention and unashamedly preens itself in the vain hope that it might be noticed or thought special.

But when you consider the history of this work, perhaps the need to be provocative, to provide light relief, to be considered ground-breaking, isn’t so surprising.

Coming Clean Trafalgar Studios

Stanton Plummer-Cambridge & Lee Knight (image courtesy of Scott Rylander)

1982 saw Coming Clean debut on the Bush Theatre stage as a kitchen sink drama about gay, sexual promiscuity in a world before HIV, a world where queer bashing was still rife and gay pride marchers were frequently arrested on false charges. So, to visualise a couple who kept sex and love in separate boxes and who threw monogamy out the window entirely, was more than just a brave choice. Only 15 years after one of these categories was legalised in the UK, Coming Clean was a bold statement that sought to celebrate the modernity and blow apart the traditional family unit.

It would be 22 years after Coming Clean‘s debut until same-sex civil partnership became permissible. Not that central couple Tony (Lee Knight) and Greg (Stanton Plummer-Cambridge) are even considering such a commitment, given their mutually agreed arrangement that eschews monogamy as something to which only 3-9% of mammalian species conform. But the timelines bring to bear the poignant context of this play, initially written at a time when homosexual co-habitation, let alone sexual freedom, was still seen as alternative. Such progressive attitudes were a threat to the nuclear family that had sustained the country for decades prior.

Coming Clean Trafalgar Studios

Tom Lambert (image courtesy of Scott Rylander)

Suddenly the grubbiness of Amanda Mascarenhas’ set, with its lived-in, comfortable quality, has a much greater impact. In the intimate space of Trafalgar Studios 2, director Adam Spreadbury-Maher creates a safe haven that is slowly destabilised and wrenched apart by the not-so-innocent cleaner, Robert (Tom Lambert). Lambert feels more at home playing the nervous, naïve ingénu than the conniving lover. But his character’s inability to read a situation brings this performance to life, as he bluntly delivers those foot-in-mouth lines that only the youth can so easily get away with.

Despite a number of underlying socio-political tensions that pervade the Coming Clean atmosphere, Spreadbury-Maher fails to bring these bubbling pressures to boil with satisfactory intensity. This production is at its strongest when the plethora of one-liners are delivered with nuance and finesse.

Enter Elliot Hadley and his adept combination of tone, pace and physical presence. Through the loud and overtly sexual act of nibbling on a cream finger or a jam doughnut, Hadley balances his comedic delivery with vulnerability and pain. Coming Clean takes time to hit its stride, but when character William interrupts Tom and Greg’s anniversary dinner with a black eye and split lip, the reality of the show’s wider politics is brought into sharp focus. The blur between sexual sadism and violent homophobia comes to the fore, with Hadley skillfully leading the atmospheric switch.

Coming Clean Trafalgar Studios

Lee Knight, Elliot Hadley, Stanton Plummer-Cambridge & Tom Lambert (image courtesy of Scott Rylander)

And therein lies the fundamental flaw with Coming Clean. The quips in Elyot’s script aim to be smokescreens that conceal the divisive issues of the time. But instead they come across as poor attempts to compensate for insecure writing. And even worse, by being the highlights of this production, the discrepancy between cheap laughs and impactful dialogue is widened even further. Both Tony and Greg have emotional and violent climaxes towards the end of this play, and while Knight and Plummer-Cambridge deliver each with emotion and tact, the lack of depth in the writing inevitably causes them to fall short.

So on the surface, Elyot’s premier work appears a tangled mess. But it does show glimpses of the comic brilliance for which My Night With Reg garnered such award-winning acclaim. And it’s a suitable vehicle that highlights the acting skill of its four protagonists. Tony’s description of a new body as a “transitory excitement” is an apt summary for Coming Clean – something fleeting that hints at the brilliance still to come.

★★★☆☆

Coming Clean plays at Trafalgar Studios until 2 February 2019. For more information or to buy tickets, please visit the venue website.