Written BY Shaun McKenna & Andrew Van Sickle
Directed By Bronagh Lagan
Till Feb 10, 2024
Kings Head Theatre
23, Jan, 2025
It’s an exclusive private view for Odell’s latest exhibition in San Fransico. Conor (Ashley D Gayle) and his new husband Mal (Jake Mitchell-Jones) bump into Conor’s ex Robbie (Robert Rees) and his new boyfriend, the newly outed Rayyan (Rolando Montecalvo). The supposed animosity between the former couple dampens the festivities exacerbating Mal’s insecurity and neediness with Rayyan’s desperate desire for validation. This all comes to ahead when the couples finally sit down, with the aide of Sebastian (Øystein Lode), hotel owner/mediator, and share some personal truths.
On leaving the theatre, I had to take a long, deep breath. The old King’s Head Theatre was one of those typical London pub that hasn’t been refurbished in years, which was part of its charm. It wasn’t just the atmosphere; it was the tradition; there was something unique about the place that made you gravitate towards it.
To usher in the new King’s Head Theatre, a bunker-like situation down several flights of stairs in a crisp new location behind its old home, Exhibitionists is a mixed bag. The characters' are never truly believable, and at times, the text by Shaun McKenna and Andrew Van Sickle is predictable, and somewhat dated. And yet I’ve not stopped thinking about it.
The humour is almost nonexistent until Sebastian appears. The playwrights have been able to offers small, interesting, insights into gay relationships that perhaps would have worked better as a drama. For me though it was the conversation between Sebastian and Mal that shows the writers had something good, it’s also one of the few moments in the play when everything is calm on stage. Sebastian, shocked that Mal is the same age as him, begins to question Mal on his need/desire to “settle” when there is a world of sexual opportunity out there for him. Confident in who he is, Sebastian tries to give Mal some new perspective on the idea of openness and what it could mean for him. It’s at this moment that one begins to look at Mal—the way he’s dressed, the way he talks and acts—and one is left with questions that are never answered. Within the gay community, there are a lot of younger men who want to enter into monogamous relationships with older men. Perhaps it’s for security, both sexually and financially, but for Mal, there seems to be something more.
The co-writers overworked and overwhelmed their text, which plays more to tropes and stereotypes about gay relationships than crafting fully rounded and believable characters. But you shake some of the text free from the confines of the play, the genuine characters do begin to emerge.
When we first meet Conor he’s brash, almost cocky with Gayle treading a campness fine-line that also holds back a lot of Conor’s emotions. But he’s not nearly as confident as he makes out; he’s still scarred by his past experience with Robbie, even if he was an enabler of Robbie’s alcoholism. For Mal’s, a late twenty-something working in the lowest ranks of the film industry, has attached himself to someone, a rich American lawyer, who he’s hoping might help get him into the film industry. And you can’t help feel that’s something Conor has dangled in front. Rayyan is lost, scared, and has fallen for the first man he’s connected with. Deep down, the complexities of his new relationship and the exploration of his sexuality, has been hard for him. In Robbie he’s found someone less willing to help or guide him but more willing to emotionally stunt him. And for Robbie, he’s toxic. Cruel. Hateful. And manipulative. Robbie’s personality explains why he’s started a relationship with Rayyan. Like a shark that can smell blood miles away, Robbie can sense the vulnerability Rayyan is feeling. He is mean towards him which makes Rayyan even more angry and confused. He’s also started an “open relationship” with someone who doesn’t want one, but owing to Rayyan’s bisexuality Robbie’s also hoping that might be enough to stop Rayyan from fully falling in love with him.
"This scene truly captures the toxicity and dependence of Conor and Robbie's relationship, and even after several years they both find themselves right back where they want to be, together."
Robbie toys with Rayon and at one point Rayyan says “he’d never hit” him, to which Robbie says that he “can be really annoying." This shouldn’t make you laugh, but it did. There was a playfulness to the way Rees delivered this snide comment, with a smirk on his face, this goads Rayyan to further profess love and respect for him even if Robbie’s rejected his proposal.
Neither Rayyan nor Mal want to be in open relationships, yet they both get into relationships with older men who don’t believe in monogamy. To me, it can only mean that Conor and Robbie are narcissists, who are cruel in how they view others who grow too close to them. Mal and Rayyan are sensitive, needy, confused, and out of their depth with the partners they’ve chosen, their youth only illustrates how unprepared they are as they continue to be manipulated by their partners.
And that’s what it is: manipulation, which is so deliciously illustrated when all four, plus Sebastian, sit down to eat at Odell’s newly completed house by Robbie. The playwrights have already told us that Robbie is an alcoholic, and something of a violent one at that. The conversation with Mel and Conor brings up his past relationship and the issues he had with Robbie’s alcoholism. As the five men get ready to eat Conor, much to Rayyan’s protestations, pours wine into Robbie’s glass. Robbie, lifting the glass to his lips, sniffs it and says ‘it’s corked’, at which point Sebastian takes the glass and smells it and says it’s fine. In all this scene, you can feel something leave Rayyan, that for the very first time he’s seeing Robbie for who he is.
Interestingly, though much has happened between the couples at this point, Rayyan and Mal are sitting together, with Robbie and Conor sitting across from them. This scene truly captures the toxicity and dependence of Conor and Robbie's relationship, and even after several years they both find themselves right back where they want to be, together. Rather than try to explain things fairly or respectfully to their respective partners, they simply end their connections. What is also telling is that Conor takes off his ring and gives it to Mal, indicating that it was he who had proposed, which neatly ties back to what happened between Robbie and Rayyan at the beginning of the play.
I wish that the material was stronger and that both playwrights had given themselves some distance with their text before it got to the King’s Head Theatre. At 100 minutes with no interval Exhibitionist was a lot, and cutting some of the fat could have made it a little easier to digest. The end, after the conversation and revelations, seems to fall back on an even older gay trope, sex. What the audience needed is a little comfort in knowing that Rayyan and Mal aren’t going to allow their experiences with their respective toxic partners hinder them or make future relationships difficult. Perhaps they kiss and then blackout, leaving us wondering. It ignores Mal and Rayyan’s emotional journey and quietly glosses over the horrible way they’ve been treated by Conor and Robbie. This emotionally charged moment between Mel and Rayyan allowing both actors to find the hearts of their characters. It’s a sweet and touching moment that is instantly ruined.