This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub
Joe DiPietro’s F*cking Men originally premiered at the Finborough Theatre in 2009, before transferring to the King’s Head where it remained for nine record-breaking months, Phil Willmott’s production becoming the longest-running Off West End play ever. After that, it moved to the Arts Theatre in the West End, received its American premiere in Los Angeles, and was revived earlier this year back in its spiritual home at the King’s Head. Now, under the direction of Mark Barford, it has returned once again.
This latest incarnation, in an effort to make it more tour-friendly, has been stripped back and scaled down – the 10-strong cast has been whittled down to just three and the set has been brutally minimalised – but it remains a stirring, thoughtful, and lively piece of theatre. A piece of theatre, one suspects, ideally suited to the intimacy of the King’s Head.
Richard De Lisle, Harper James, and Haydn Whiteside all multirole impressively in 10 different, largely unconnected scenes, all but one of which involve some kind of sexual act between male characters. The audience peeks, voyeuristically, into a series of intimate moments, some tender, some not so much.
In the first, James and Whiteside play a soldier and an escort respectively, the former hesitantly propositioning the latter. In the next, James’ soldier has grown in confidence and hooks up with De Lisle’s tutor in a sauna. In the third, De Lisle’s tutor is persuaded into sleeping with a vivacious student, played by Whiteside. And so it progresses, each character appearing in two consecutive scenes, two different ‘hook-ups’.
It is a structure unashamedly stolen from Arthur Schnitzler’s 1897 play La Ronde, and what it fails to provide in character development, it more than makes up for in the panoramic perspective it provides on the sexual relations of the gay community. The audience is presented with a host of individuals, each with their own dreams, their own problems, their own idiosyncrasies, and their own reasons for being there. It is testament to all three actors’ versatility that none of the characters bleed into one another, instead remaining entirely distinct throughout.
It is DiPietro’s writing that brings the piece to life, though. He has a gloriously sensitive touch and the structure of the piece allows him to really flaunt himself. Some scenes crackle with sexual tension, others are crammed full of sassy one-liners and withering put-downs. In truth, they do begin to become slightly formulaic, with one character attempting to entice the other in a variety of ways, but they are never anything less than engrossing.
The conflicts F*cking Men repeatedly returns to, the conflicts that characterise the gay experiences it represents – monogamy vs promiscuity, love vs lust, age vs youth – are all dealt with elegantly and with pleasing inconclusiveness. Although the play has understandably become something of a touchstone for LGBTQ+ theatre, it is worth noting that the issues it touches on have a universal significance as well. That is to say, one does not have to be gay to appreciate F*cking Men.
DiPietro’s play is a discussion piece more than anything else, and the only message that it really intends to convey – one that all can relate to – is summed up well by De Lisle’s mincing, Forster-quoting playwright character: human connection is all we really seek in such matters.