The Twentieth Century Way is a rather glorious euphemism for gay men in the early twentieth century using the advent of zip flies to access anonymous sex in public places. I love this as a phrase.
It’s also a play, by Tom Jacobson, that tells the story of a couple of actors on the make, Warren and Brown, who offer their services to various local police forces posing as gay men themselves to entrap real gay men in these situations, marking their bits with indelible ink and calling police backup to arrest them.
I say that, but it becomes increasingly obvious in the eighty minute run time that this isn’t what the play is about. Or at least not everything it’s about. And this is where the fun lies.
The play switches between the multiple stories of the characters Warren and Brown are playing and the real gay men they are fooling. But it also incorporates the story of Warren and Brown themselves and, getting more meta, the real life actors playing them. You very quickly start to question what is really happening here. Are the (fictional) actors actually taking part in these entrapment schemes? Is it all just, as the very beginning of the play sets it up, an improvisation game between two bored (fictional) actors in an audition waiting room? And what have the real life actors got to do with all of this? Where does their reality fit into the multiple stories they’re telling and the multiple levels of truth, or otherwise, they reveal?
If that all sounds a bit pretentious and complicated then, in truth, that’s because it is. But it’s also really entertaining, engaging and an interesting way to portray the age old debates about the nature of truth and acting that are explored in so many plays in more conventional ways. And of course Warren and Brown’s scheme is based on a true story so the play is also a fascinating piece of social history as well.
Adding to the confusion and excitement of this piece is the fact that it is entirely played by two actors, James Sindall and Fraser Wall, on stage the whole time, making only the most minor changes in their accents, mannerisms and costumes to demark the myriad different characters they both play. Again it’s a piece of theatrical trickery but, again, it works. It is very, very occasionally overdone - with both of the actors being given ‘party piece’ sequences to show off as many characters as quickly as possible in a slightly irritating way - but the two are both really impressive. The subtleties of the physical changes they make whilst still managing to portray recognisably different characters is incredible, as is the sheer range of emotion and characterisation they’re able to create. It feels wrong to single one person out in a two man show, but Wall in particular is fantastic. Both are names to watch out for in the future I suspect.
Admittedly this show, which was playing at the teeny tiny (and utterly adorable) Jermyn Street Theatre, has now closed. But I’d be amazed if it doesn’t reappear in London in some guise again and I do hope it’s this one so more people get a chance to see it. In any guise, it’s certainly worth seeing; in this one, it’s fantastic.