Straight White Men review: UK premiere of Young Jean Lee’s play is a privilege

·2-min read
Charlie Condou, Cary Crankson, Alex Mugnaioni & Simon Rouse in Straight White Men (Pamela Raith Photography)
Charlie Condou, Cary Crankson, Alex Mugnaioni & Simon Rouse in Straight White Men (Pamela Raith Photography)

Overheard in Southwark Playhouse’s bar: "are you here for Straight White Men?” To which came the reply: “yes, I’m here for Straight White Men.” Not heard anyone admit to THAT for a while in public, I think. The title may sound like a punchline, but Young Jean Lee’s play actually is here for straight white men, in so much as it’s making the case for all of us to try to better understand one another.

Directed by Steven Kunis, this is its UK premiere. It made Lee the first Asian-American woman to have a play produced on Broadway back in 2018, and it’s surprising that it’s taken such a while to arrive here; this boisterous production makes it still feel like a fresh and buzzy hot ticket.

Loud music booms before the play begins, and Suzu Sakai’s clever set frames a drably realist living room with signs like ‘LIVE SHOW’, a reminder that we’re watching someone else’s construction. That’s emphasised too by the Persons in Charge, two trans performers (Kamari Roméo and Kim Tatum), who winningly set the terms of the show. Their appearances are brief but important.

The majority of the action is almost sitcom-like, as three adult brothers return to their dad’s house for Christmas. Confident, witty Jake (Alex Mugnaioni, a joy) is a recently divorced dad, working as a banker; nerdy Drew (Cary Crankson) is a successful novelist who has become evangelical about therapy, and quiet Matt (Charlie Condou) is a Harvard grad who’s moved back in with his dad and is working a temp job. Their widowed father, Ed (Simon Rouse), buys them all matching pyjamas. Christina Fulcher’s stellar movement direction has brought out physical performances that tell us just as much as words – they dry hump each other’s faces, dive bomb sofas, and generally gobble up space as a way of life.

As they eat a takeaway together and reminisce about scatological childhood memories, Matt starts to cry – something that unsettles each of them in different ways. Why has he moved home? Is he depressed? Is he deliberately giving up his space in the world as a sacrifice? He’s breaking the white man rules, to be powerful and successful. But is retreating and wasting your opportunities not also the embodiment of privilege?

This was written in 2014, and since then we’ve become used to the menz being more summarily dismissed. The compassion here feels almost quaint, but this is also a plea for the rest of the world to receive it in return. Lee’s play is funny, well-observed, often surprisingly gentle, and refreshingly nuanced. Straight White Men: I’m here for it.

Southwark Playhouse, until Dec 4; southwarkplayhouse.co.uk

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