This is a play about the world getting worse.
Camp and endearing aid worker Jeremy (Douglas Booth), who definitely isn’t gay, is on his way home from a stint in Uganda atoning for his white guilt when he misses his connecting flight and ends up in Teddy’s Amsterdam hotel room for a beer.
Swaggering banker Teddy (Clifford Samuel), who definitely is gay, has been camped out in the room ever since his best friend walked out and didn’t come back.
The claustrophobia is palpable.
Set in the Obama years, Ken Urban’s new play centres around two American men far from home. A seemingly innocuous encounter, between two strangers who have nothing in common but their nationality, becomes a deeply significant confessional for their sins, flaws and fears.
Jeremy is fresh from the horrors of his first Medicins Sans Frontieres posting, where he has witnessed the uprising of homophobic violence, stoked by visiting American pastors, his countrymen. Young and naive, yet already disillusioned, he carries the burden of his failure to help a friend left behind.
Teddy tries to counsel him, but it quickly becomes clear that his brittle advice is a paper-thin disguise for his own guilt. Choked by panic and his ignorance of mental illness, he gradually tries talking about his friend’s experiences of living with bipolar disorder to a listening Jeremy.
Jonathan O’Boyle’s production is heavy with tension, stylistically laced with Hitchcockian vibes as we watch the ghosts of past deeds creep up on his increasingly vulnerable characters. He also finds moments of touching humour, most memorably in an innuendo-laden sequence at the start of the play when Teddy and Jeremy thirstily suck beer from slits in the side of the can.
Teddy and Jeremy pour out their stories and the action jumps to their memories. O’Boyle handles these transitions with finesse and his choices work effectively with the soundscape and lighting design (the never-ending rainstorm is a particularly good call).
However, just like its heroes, this show is not without its flaws. There are cringe moments, notably the play’s only sex scene which is conducted during twenty-something awkward seconds, in total darkness while spa music croons in the background.
A bigger gripe is Booth’s hollowness as Jeremy. Technically he is good, he manages the multiple transitions between characters convincingly, and he’s also very funny, his screen experience revealing itself in flashes of expert comic timing. However, he doesn’t quite hold up when the play reaches its moments of high drama, and they ring false as a result.
Samuel is excellent. There is a lot to admire in his performance, particularly during the final turns of the screw when the excruciatingly honest Teddy strips off his armour, layer by layer. Samuel is funny too, and he slips into the embedded rhythm of Urban’s writing with apparent ease.
Trafalgar Studio 2 is an uncomfortably intimate space, which is absolutely the right choice for this pressure-cooker play. It is unflinching in its examination of a shrinking world fraying at the seams, rife with homophobia, repression and loneliness.
This is a moment in time, a collective lurch of our heart and guts as the ground gives way beneath us. Things can get worse. Time can slide backwards. Ultimately, A Guide to the Homesick is a call to action, a warning against apathy, and a plea not to assume that progress is inevitable.
Reviewed by Annabel Mellor
Photo: Helen Maybanks
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