5 Guys Chillin
’ is the second piece that the Kings Head Theatre & Pub on Upper St, Islington has staged recently about chemsex: the phenomenon of gay men using drugs such as crystal meth, mephedrone and GHB during sex. The last was Patrick Cash’s impressive The Clinic.
5 Guys Chillin’ takes a similar approach to The Clinic in that the playwright, Peter Darney, has weaved his script from more than 50 hours of interviews with guys on apps like Grindr about their experience with chemsex. The resulting play is a compelling, albeit uneven piece of verbatim theatre about a topical subject.
The evening begins with the two hosts welcoming their guests in one by one. The characters quickly strip off to their party attire and then get down to the drugs and sex; injecting, fisting and so on, non-stop for 80 minutes. At first, it’s refreshing to hear men talking about extreme sex in such an honest way. Its audience is clearly intended to be gay and bi men – but one of its flaws is that there is a bit too much of it and not enough exploration of why it’s happening or what is drawing these men to it in the first place.
For the first half hour I wasn’t sure if it was a celebration of chemsex – something some may argue is inappropriate. There’s only so long you can listen to a group of addicts sitting round wanking over their sex lives. Some of the stories are really graphic too and can inspire some moments of queasiness. It does become clear that the Darney wants to show the grim reality of what is really going on – these are all lines from real people, after all – but one comment about why one of the participants prefers his sexual partners to have STI’s left me conflicted about whether this much detail would alienate the audience. This is hard subject matter to engage people with, and the play took too long getting to the meat of what has led these guys to shooting up and asking people who threaten them with knives back to their homes time and again.
There are some very impressive moments, an overdose (presumably GHB) is powerfully staged, and the actors are to be commended. The play is explicit in every way – one of them spends the whole show in a jockstrap – and it’s not easy conveying the humanity of people in such extremely self-destructive situations. The back story of one character, skilfully played by Shri Patel, looks at his complicated life as a gay Asian man in an arranged marriage indulging in gay group sex on the side. Elliot Hadley is impressive as a gurning, grinning Mancunian, successfully expressing the sadness of the situation. The ending too is very clever and stays with you after the curtain has come down.
5 Guys Chillin’ is commendable in its intentions, but it could be far more impactful if it hit the audience with the back stories earlier. However, if it gets people in to the theatre to engage in subject matter which has been left unexamined for so long, then it is part of a valuable social discourse.
info: 5 Guys Chillin’, Kings Head Theatre, Upper St, Islington, N1 until 24th October.