By Christopher Walker
Midlife crises come in many shapes and sizes. Mark Gerrard chooses to explore that of Steve, a New York ‘hoofer’ fighting off aging, and lost in his own world of show tunes and make believe. It is a bittersweet comedy, that may push some people’s boundaries, but has a lot to say about a universal phenomenon – whether gay or straight.
The Seven Dials Playhouse is a new one hundred seat theatre on London’s scene, dedicated to “contemporary text-based plays and musicals.” It has opened with Steve.
Rather confusingly there are four characters called Steve in this play. The central one, his boy friend Stephen, their son Stevie, and an off-stage character, the gorgeous “Trainer Steve” who plays a key role, but sadly we don’t get to meet.
Then there’s another Steve – Stephen Sondheim. His music is a dominating force in the characters lives, and I stopped counting the references to his works when I got to fifty. The lovely Ben Papworth, the show’s musical director, keeps up an almost endless instrumental medley of them on a piano at the back of the stage.
They’re all here – Gypsy (1959), A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1962), Company (1970), Follies (1971), A Little Night Music (1973), Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (1979), Sunday in the Park with George (1984), and especially Into the Woods (1987).
For gay men into musicals and living in New York, there is no bigger idol. There is a short announcement before the show begins about his recent passing, and one is rather glad the play predated this event, or the characters trauma would be even greater than it already is.
And trauma there is plenty – especially for David Ames who is very captivating as the main character Steve. I’ve seen dancers in their late forties and it’s often not fun. And it certainly isn’t for him.
Washed up with no career prospects, a troublesome toddler, and a partner who spends too much time texting a friend’s boyfriend. Or should one say ‘sexting’ – rather explicitly at one point, with the sexual suggestions displayed on a video screen. This piece is only for the broad-minded.
Joe Aaron Reid gives a convincing performance as Stephen, a New York banker, struggling to keep up with his boyfriend’s meltdown.
That crisis is made worse by the slow death of one of Steve’s closest friend Carrie, played by the lovely Jenna Russell (from Celebrating Sondheim at the Chichester festival). She keeps telling Steve she’s dying, but he simply won’t accept it. There are some very touching scenes between them, including a dream sequence. Something one imagines Steve does a lot of.
Comedy comes from Michael Walters playing Matt, who seems to be reprising the role he played in smash hit The Inheritance. He is very compelling watching, and deserves bigger roles. His boyfriend Brian, the object of Stephen’s lusty texts, is played by Giles Cooper (who played Nigel Slater in Toast). Brian is more interested in “Trainer Steve,” who we keep being told is drop dead gorgeous, but never get to see.
By way of compensation, Argentinian hunk Nico Conde plays Argentinian hunk ‘Esteban,’ who keeps appearing, whether waiting tables or hopping beds.
Designer Lee Newby deserves plaudits. Especially for her successful collaboration with video designer Dick Straker and for the revolving centre stage, which allows the audience to see everyone’s face as the five characters dine in Joe Allen’s served by Esteban.
One just longed for someone to actually burst into song.
If you fancy an evening in New York’s gay community, go to www.sevendialsplayhouse.co.uk/shows/steve
Pictured top: Jenna Russell, Joe Aaron Reid, David Ames, Giles Cooper and Michael Walters in Steve (image: The Other Richard)