Theatre Reviews

‘Afterglow’ at the Southwark Playhouse: The nudity is not worth it

Afterglow clearly markets itself to the voyeur, but has all the depth of a Saharan paddling pool.


“Afterglow”

F

Starring Jesse Fox, Sean Hart and Danny Mahoney


For a play blissfully called Afterglow, perhaps a more apropos name would be Aftertaste, as I spent much of the 82-minute performance finding myself woefully disengaged and wishing for the entire thing to end. Despite the risqué premise and the promise of full frontal male nudity (always a draw), Afterglow is about as interesting as throwing wet paper towels against a bathroom wall, and the performances over a similar amount of emotional depth.

Afterglow concerns the lives of married couple Josh (Sean Hart) – a theatre director – and Alex (Danny Mahoney) – a researcher – following a threesome with Darius (Jesse Fox), a professional masseuse. The cosy domesticity of the married couple, who are soon to welcome a child via surrogate, is thrown off kilter by Josh and Darius forming a more meaningful connection away from Alex.

It’s an interesting enough premise, but it finds itself becoming utterly predictable. Despite the sunny title, the play rumbles along with a depressing sense of inevitability. You can tell as soon as Josh and Darius organise to meet up away from Alex that the relationship is going to cross the boundary and become something more than the married couple are equipped to deal with, and that will ultimately spell their downfall. The sympathy of the audience, therefore, is overwhelmingly lost within minutes, as the play gives away all of its cards and offers precious little twist as we meander from A to B.

Even with the lure of naked men on stage, which is always a bonus, the play falls into the trap of employing typical ideals of male beauty and standards that are enforced upon gay men. It therefore results in their nudity becoming almost numbing and dull, as you become fatigued from their perfect physiques after a matter of minutes. The nude scenes therefore become less arousing as they are contrived, and even an on-stage shower isn’t enough to inject some passion into emotionally flaccid sections.

The production is also awkwardly punctuated by painful scene changes, in which pulsing club music accompanies actors shiftily moving set pieces around in some sort of real-life tetris, making the audience feel like they’ve come to watch their friends move into a flat, as opposed to being entertained.

It is a shame that such a groundbreaking Off-Broadway production has had such an unsuccessful English iteration, and I am not sure entirely who is at fault for that. Perhaps it is the direction of Tom O’Brien (the American production was directed by the writer, S. Asher Gelman), or maybe it is the slightly weak performances given by the lead actors. While I felt that the dialogue and text was relatively well-written, thought-provoking and realistic, it was let down by the one-dimensional delivery of the actors. In one particular section in which Darius had to muster up a semblance of emotion, I rolled my eyes so hard I had to check that they hadn’t been audible in their disapproval. Both Darius and Josh were so unlikable by the end, in fact, that I found myself not caring about their characters at all when we reached the climax.

As I say, it’s a shame. It’s such a privilege that such plays exist now where the story is no longer about characters being gay, but more moving beyond that into more interesting fare. I would have preferred that polyamory been treated in a more positive and communicative way, instead of seemingly such a dire warning. I feel like the text doesn’t even treat it as a serious option and instead obliterates the entire notion of it. The play had a lot to say upon the nature of online dating and how the advent of the alarming availability of sex dramatically affecting relationships and their morality. While it does not reach a solid conclusion, it’s fair to say that the play errs on the side of “just because you can, doesn’t mean that you should” – an almost cautionary warning that self control should still be administered, even within the sex-positive world of gay culture nowadays. It is this sort of forward thinking that makes me almost cross that the production fell into the trap of casting stereotypically beautiful men.

While a potentially thought-provoking and engaging piece upon modern relationships, this production was let down by unconvincing performances and laboured scene transitions. Perhaps if the casting directors had chosen to make their decisions based upon the ability to emote and create nuanced characters, instead of focussing upon how “good” (in other words, plastic) they looked naked, the production would have resonated better with the unimpressed audience at the Southwark Playhouse.

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