Oh Jesus, another ‘gay play’ — except that this time, Jesus himself features quite a bit. Next Fall pitches an interesting slant on the gay ‘dramedy’ where a young guy from Florida is challenged to justify his strong religious faith by a relationship with an older, cynical atheist. And then — cue off-stage car-crash sound effects — he's in a coma and his fundamentalist parents claim all rights over the hospitalised body.
Charlie Condou (Marcus from Coronation Street, sometime partner of its tedious stock gay character Sean Tully) isn't especially outstanding as Adam, the wise-cracking New York atheist, and he looks too uncharismatically scruffy and GAP-bargain-bin-dressed to be the 40-something ‘older man’ to whom Luke is attracted; but the rest of the cast, particularly the women, are both more credibly-drawn and very well acted.
When this show made the leap from off-Broadway to a mainstream theatre it was championed and, in name at least, produced by Sir Elton John and David Furnish. Last night’s Southwark Playhouse audience featured a strangely subdued Alan Carr. In fact all the audience were strangely subdued, despite being mostly gay male couples, as though they were shy of laughing out loud at the snappy comic one-liners and situations.
Freshly-squeezed Florida fruit Luke is given a smart and solid performance by Martin Delaney, and comparison with Armistead Maupin’s Michael Tolliver from Tales of the City who also fled Florida’s Bible Belt is inevitable; but it’s the women rather than the bland central couple who capture your interest. Sirine Saba plays Holly, Adam’s long-time supportive friend and his boss at the candle shop where he works. Her expressive face strengthens the script and imbues it with more meaning than the lines on the page, so you get the impression she’s a living, breathing emotionally-grounded woman and so much more than the cakeaholic over-eater suggested by the original text.
But it’s Nancy Crane as Arlene, Luke’s somewhat wayward mother who is separated from his father — and has a racier past of her own to narrate — who steals every scene she’s in. Whether it's the subtle sharpness of her comic timing, or the suddenness with which she can casually pivot the emotional balance of the piece, she demonstrates excellent acting, and has some great lines — we’d be agog to hear more of her experience at the hands of the "one-armed beautician from Shreveport".
You may question how Luke failed to come out to this flawed and self-aware woman — who one might assume would be at the very least understanding — and there are other inconsistencies in the plot, but like My Night With Reg, there are many moments where you’ll marvel at how clever a comedy has been made from such sad situations. Well worth a look.
Next Fall runs at Southwark Playhouse until 25 October. Tickets £18 from the theatre website. Londonist saw this play on a complimentary ticket.