In the realm of theatrical productions that aim to explore important historical events and their relevance to contemporary society, ‘What It Means’ by James Corley certainly stands out for its ambitious premise. Based on the groundbreaking 1971 article ‘What It Means to Be a Homosexual’ by Merle Miller, this play endeavours to shed light on the struggle for LGBTQ+ equality, a topic of paramount importance in the current climate. However, whilst the play’s intentions are noble, it is, unfortunately, an absurdly and unnecessarily long production that bears a striking resemblance to a dry academic lecture rather than a traditional piece of contemporary theatre, and this ultimately leaves audiences fighting to reach the finish line.
The central pillar of ‘What It Means’ is the (near) solo performance by Richard Cant, who admirably carries the weight of the entire play on his shoulders for a solid 90 minutes. Cant’s performance is a testament to his talent as an actor, delivering Corley’s reflections on historical events with sincerity and commitment. He conveys the gravity of the subject matter effectively, and his dedication to the role is undeniable. A very talented performer.
However, the primary flaw that hampers ‘What It Means’ is the script itself. While it is based on a seminal article that played a pivotal role in the LGBTQ+ rights movement, the play’s script remains disappointingly monotone and lacks any significant moments of excitement or depth aside from a few memorable lines. The narrative fails to capture the essence of Merle Miller’s passionate and thought-provoking writing, leaving the audience yearning for a more engaging portrayal of the events and the people involved.
What is particularly ironic about ‘What It Means’ is its intended message of standing up for one’s beliefs and embracing the validity of one’s own voice. Regrettably, the writer, James Corley, seems to have lost his own voice within the play’s dull and uninspiring dialogue. The lack of personality in the script and the lack of imagination in Harry Mackrill’s direction, hampers the ability of the audience to connect with the character and his struggles.
Despite its shortcomings, ‘What It Means’ does manage to touch on important historical moments and themes that remain highly relevant today. The fight for LGBTQ+ equality and the courage to be oneself are issues that deserve attention and discussion and clearly resonated with the mostly youthful and socially conscious audience; however, the potential impact of these themes is entirely undermined by the play’s inability to deliver a compelling and emotionally resonant narrative.
Playing until 28th October.
Reviewer: Alan Stuart Malin
Reviewed: 9th October 2023
North West End UK Rating: