This sad, subtle, delicate new play marked the first collaboration between author James Martin Charlton and Benet Catty, who had first met after Charlton had approached Catty to direct a revival of an early play of his in 2002 which never got off the ground.
Just before Christmas 2004, the White Bear Theatre – a theatre with a strong track record in producing new plays (Yin Tong and Round the Horne... Revisited among their recent West End transfers) decided to produce the play in their spring season.
‘Getting Off’ uses the form of the drawing room comedy to peek at the lives, loves and lusts of a bunch of rich young gay guys spending a weekend together in a country house. The sexual tension may be high but the morals are low, as Will, the central character, discovers to his cost.
Taking place in the weekend prior to 9/11, the play is about the tension between the characters, the ways in which they try to disguise it from each other and themselves, and the consequences for them of doing that. The production eshewed any sense of naturalism in the staging in order to give access to the machinations going on beneath. The opening sequence began, for instance, with the company creating the design of the room – unveiling the furniture covered in dust-sheets, placing key props, etc. – to suggest that this was what the characters were metaphorically doing over the weekend: creating a world for themselves.
Loud piano and percussion music linked the stylized scene transitions to add to this feeling, as well as to the chart the restlessness of the lead character’s mind, only to move to a more gentle, melodic sound when he himself became more tranquil and reflective. Short freezes were used as if to allow the audience to see a moment or a relationship in isolation before the play moved on. The cumulative effect of both play and production was to give the sense that more was going on than meets the eye.
Audiences' responses varied hugely. Some were entertained by it but didn’t ‘get’ the purpose; some ‘got it’ but were turned off by the unpleasantness of some of the characters. But as the run carried on, reactions became more consistent and enthusiastic and increasingly the show would sell out. The play, the production and the performances all received excellent notices; Gordon Dickinson – an agent to John Osborne amongst others in the past – said it was the best ensemble he’d seen anywhere, and several producers and people from within the industry expressed their enthusiasm. The production, although marketed as a gay play, proved to play to a much wider audience than anticipated.