Jonathan Harvey's big gay play
Jonathan Harvey is one of our leading gay play wrights, so the arrival of a fresh work is an event to be celebrated. Time Out talks to him about his new play 'Canary'
If Jonathan Harvey never wrote another gay play, we'd still have 'Beautiful Thing'. First staged in 1993, and directed by Hettie Macdonald, Harvey's award-winning tale of gay teenagers
in love charmed audiences and critics alike. He's written several plays since, but is better known for his television work on 'Coronation Street' and 'Beautiful People'.
Now he's back with a new play - and what a play it is. 'Canary' sees him reunited with director Macdonald, and judging by the script and the advance reviews, it's the big gay play many of us were hoping for. The title comes from Peter Tatchell's observation that 'women and gay people are the litmus test of whether a society is democratic and respecting human rights. We are the canaries in the mine.'
Spanning 50 years, and exploring the way we lived before the days of gay civil partnerships, 'Canary' has already been compared by one reviewer to 'Angels in America'. It's certainly ambitious, taking in everything from aversion therapy and the Gay Liberation Front to Thatcherism, the miners' strike and the arrival of Aids.
Did you set out to write something so big and ambitious?
'When I was younger I wrote plays about being a young gay man. I think the older I got, the more aware I became of the history of the gay community and how things have changed in my lifetime. So I did set out to write a gay history play. I thought it might be a television series at one point because I did loads of research and there was was just so much to say. I didn't know about half these things.'
'I know a lot about my own family history. My nan was the eldest of 11 kids, and those stories have been passed down from generation to generation. But as gay people we've not usually had children to pass those stories down to. So I felt a bit like Kim Cattrall on “Who Do You Think You Are?” I really did feel as if I was researching my family tree.'
The central character is Tom, a senior policeman with a family and a secret past. How different is his experience to that of gay people today?
'It's interesting talking to the younger gay actors in the play. They don't feel the way I did when I was their age, and that's really liberating. They're enjoying the freedoms that people like the Gay Liberation Front fought for all those years ago. Obviously it's not without its problems. Say what you like about Thatcher, but there was something about the nature of what she was doing that gave us a sense of community, and one that I feel just isn't there any more. Also, talking
to younger gay people today, there's this idea that HIV is an old man's disease, which really winds me up.'
There's that sense in the play. It's very moving and also quite angry in parts.
'When I first started out writing I went to some writers' meeting and Sue Townsend was talking. She said: “You might not think that there's anger or outrage in my plays or books, but that's where it starts. It starts with the things that really wind you up.” And that was true of “Beautiful Thing”. It's a very feel-good play, but I did write it from a sense of anger about the unequal age of consent at the time. I wanted to show a love story about boys who were younger than 18.'
'And certainly this play comes from a sense of frustration, of wanting to shake people and say: “This is what it was like.” Hopefully it's a good story and it's entertaining and it's shocking. But I definitely wanted to challenge the younger gay audience, and show them just how lucky they are.'
Canary is at the Hampstead Theatre from Mon May 17.