The Royal Court’s raison d’etre has never been to produce instantly accessible dramas that are easy to love – and it most certainly hasn’t been doing this of late. Its recent fare has been notably challenging; the last play in the main house was Sound of the Underground, a highly uneven exploration of the queer cabaret scene. Now comes this choppy debut play from actor Danny Lee Wynter, which takes black masculinity and gay sexuality as its principal themes, alongside issues of ageing, friendship and career success.
I’m perpetually wary of the notion of a “target audience” for any piece of drama, preferring to believe, perhaps naively, that good theatre transcends any easy demographic classification. Yet the always provocative Court relishes testing this theory and I required a re-read of the script on the journey home to untangle various points of confusion. Am I the “wrong” audience, or could the writing be a little smoother?
Wynter himself takes the plaintive leading role of David, a struggling actor and all-round troubled soul about to turn 40 who is recovering from a major mental health crisis that is only glancingly referenced. He lives with his punchy but protective younger sister Syd (Rochenda Sandall) and their friendship group also includes King (Dyllón Burnside) and Raheem (Eloka Ivo), two far more successful gay black actors.
Although uncensored in their private lives King – who has unilaterally decided that he is in an open marriage with his husband Steven – and Raheem are considerably more circumspect when it comes to what they are prepared to say in public. This provokes David to wail, “And as black gay men WHERE THE F**K ARE OUR STORIES? Where’re our parts?” King and Raheem, flying high in their work, dismiss his fretful concerns about representation and openness. Daniel Evans’s fierce production cannot disguise the fact that Wynter edges around this pertinently current issue without adding much incisive clarity to the debate.
David’s long-harboured fantasies about a superhero have collided awkwardly with reality given that King, portrayed with a convincing patina of smooth stardom by Burnside, plays the lead in a Black Panther-style franchise called Crawtopia. Scenes, full of sexual frankness, change abruptly and matters climax, in a variety of ways, when David joins King on a press junket in Australia.
Yet for all the snappy exchanges between the friends, it remains frustratingly hard to determine exactly what lies at the core of each of them, when the braggadocio is stripped away. Far more convincing is the sibling bond between Syd and David, imbued with such a powerful sense of shared history, suffering and strength by Sandall and Wynter. It is this resolutely earthbound relationship that outshines the world of superheroes.
To 29 April (020 7565 5000, www.royalcourttheatre.com)