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Martin Sherman’s Refreshing Love Story ‘Passing By’ at the Tristan Bates Theatre, Covent Garden

Updated on November 21, 2013
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'Passing By' at the Tristan Bates Theatre

5 stars for Martin Sherman's 'Passing By'
James Cartwright (Simon) and Rik Makarem (Toby)
James Cartwright (Simon) and Rik Makarem (Toby) | Source

With Rik Makarem and James Cartwright

Written by Martin Sherman

Directed by Andrew Keates

Produced by Arion Productions Ltd

Supported by the Arts Council, England

Showing at the Tristan Bates Theatre until 30th November

"Love isn’t forever. Love is just passing by."

(Review by Fiona Lister)

Rarely have I attended a play where a love story isn’t entrenched in treachery, heartbreak and a dose of anger followed by breakups and horrors. Refreshingly, Martin Sherman’s tender gay love story is a world away from this. It’s beautifully warm-hearted, delicate, philosophical work. I found myself smiling and laughing throughout this charming 80 minute long production and despite Passing By being billed as a ‘gay play’ it’s a play that every gay, lesbian or heterosexual in town will identify with: most of us have had a “Love isn’t forever, love is just passing by” moment in our lives. Yes, Passing By is a celebration of gay love but it’s a light-hearted romantic comedy that we can all empathise with.

Arion Productions have produced another play that appeals to a wide audience. Director Andrew Keates and Producer Andrew Harmer only pick productions that are written from the heart and scripts that have a strong human interest story, whether philosophical, political or just because they resonate. They are joined by Jennifer Bakst (Assistant Director) on this production. Jennifer is the former Resident Assistant Director of the Finborough Theatre where she worked with Andrew Keates on ROOMS: A Rock Romance.

Arion’s last work at the Finborough was a very moving, powerful play set in the 1980s about AIDS called As Is by William M. Hoffman which made a huge impact on audiences. Opting to produce one of Martin Sherman’s lighter philosophical works at the Tristan Bates after Hoffman is in great contrast. I had no idea what to expect since Sherman’s work, in particular his well-known Pulitzer Prize nominated play Bent is hard-hitting (Bent details the lives of a homosexual couple living under the Nazis). Andrew Keates produced Bent in 2010 over at the Landor Theatre when he was just 24 years-old. Keates is the youngest director to be granted the professional rights by Martin Sherman to direct this play.

Passing By was originally produced in London in 1975 by Gay Sweatshop and InterAction Productions at the Almost Free Theatre and the roles were played by Simon Callow (Toby) and Michael Dickinson (Simon). Since then Andrew has revived the production which played last year at the Finborough Theatre in association with Neil McPherson and starred Steven Webb and Alex Felton in the title roles. Thanks to its sell-out run at the Finborough this charming play has returned to the London stage again with Rik Makarem and James Cartwright taking centre stage.

Martin Sherman has written a very simplistic story set in New York City in the summer of 1972. The opening scene features the heady moment when two lovers meet in a cinema. There’s the flickering lighting from the showreel over which plays the wistful sound of Jeanne Moreau singing ‘Le Tourbillon’, a haunting song taken from the 1962 film, Jules et Jim directed by François Truffaut. The lovers awake the next morning and begin a relationship where the two polar opposites find their insecurities put to the test. Thanks to Benjamin Newsome’s casting Rik Makarem and James Cartwright are superbly matched as two lost souls who are united in loneliness and growing affection. Voice Coach Sarah Stephenson has worked with the boys to help them develop what sound’s like a very soft, light Minnesota accent which is highly effective, particularly in Simon’s drinking scene were a slow drawl adds to the comedy.

Rik Makarem plays the role of Toby, a neurotic hypochondriac artist who is desperate for adventures and success but plagued with insecurity and nerves. Makarem gives a loveable portrayal of the Jewish New Yorker who calls the doctor at the sight of a splinter. “You can get lockjaw!” he yells at his lover looking wide-eyed with horror at the thought of death by splinter.

The role of Simon is played by James Cartwright who provides the perfect antidote to Toby’s ills. Simon is a laidback tall bronzed Olympic diver, who despite his confidence and obsession with the perfect body image is much lonelier than lover Toby and needs him more than Toby can tolerate at times. When both men discover they have Hepatitis the struggle and bond they share in looking after each other produces high comedy. They are holed up together in Toby’s apartment where they play nursemaid to each other day and night for weeks. Simon lounges helplessly on the bed wearing a pair of fetching blue y-fronts (nothing else) throughout most of the production. He lies on the bed cursing his illness, feeling sorry for himself and forces his neurotic friend to fetch and carry. Costume Designer Philippa Batt has created a sturdy pair of budgie smugglers for Simon. Toby’s college boy brown trousers matched with checked shirt and Simon’s surfer boy / Greek God look are suitably 1970s. Their ensembles are completed with Starsky & Hutch fashioned sideburns and combed forwards hair, courtesy of Elaine Smith (Hair & Makeup).

The sounds playing in and linking each scene works well. Matthew Strachan (Arion’s new composer in residence) and Fred Riding (Sound Designer) have created an atmospheric ambience to bridge scenes. The set design by Philip Lindley and Lighting Design by Jack Weir is simple but highly impressive, giving the illusion of separate rooms for each scene.

New York in the 1970s was a time when gay men were beginning to “come out” and publicly reveal their sexuality to friends and relatives, in particular following the 1969 Stonewall riots in Greenwich Village that lead to gay liberation. Without knowing about AIDS there was a freedom to love, to not use contraception and to just live and be while outside the four walls of their apartments attitudes of neighbours were judgemental, fuelled by media and political attitudes. It was even risqué for gay couples to be seen kissing in public.

I read in the programme that Martin Sherman initially pulled the first production of Passing By from New York in 1983. He was concerned that a story featuring two gay men living with Hepatitis was badly timed given the 1980’s AIDS epidemic and he was keen to avoid the growing misconceptions and prejudice linking illness with homosexuality, such was the scaremongering mainly in the press at that time. Today’s social climate demonstrates that times have certainly changed and looking around at the audience it’s abundantly clear that both gay and heterosexuals appreciate and like this work. The last thing you think about when watching this is sexuality. It’s irrelevant. It’s just a heart-warming, beautifully written story about the moment two folk meet and fall in love in very difficult circumstances and times, but I’m not going to give the end of the story way. You’ll have to go and see it.

Passing By runs until Saturday 30th November

Dates & Times:

Tuesday to Saturday at 7:30 p.m.

Sunday at 3:00 p.m.

Tickets: £14 / £12 concessions

Box Office: 020 7240 6283


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    • loveofnight profile image

      loveofnight 4 years ago from Baltimore, Maryland

      this is a very detailed and thorough review, although i must admit that i am not familiar with martin sherman, you have peeked my interest. thanks for the share.