This is the one where all the trouble started. Gay Sweatshop announced that it was looking for new plays, so I wrote Latecomer within a month and submitted it to them in 1975. I hadn’t previously written a full-length play, only revues and I was very pleased with myself when I sent it off.
I described it as a cross between Agatha Christie and George Bernard Shaw. Pretentious Moi? Also very old-fashioned, with two models from forty and sixty years previously.
I had been a fan of detective fiction since my early teens and it struck me that in ferreting out truths the genre was a fruitful form to use for a play about people who were lurking in the closet. It is a play about hypocrisy, facades and lies.
Equally I’ve had a passion for George Bernard Shaw for almost as long. My grandfather met him and that meeting is the subject of one of my songs. What I liked about him was that he was a true ‘metaphysical’ in the same way as Donne or Herbert or Cavalier crowd.
His characters’ emotions arise out of their ideas and they feel through their thought. The quality and nature of the emotion is expressed through the shape of the arguments they use. I wanted to use the Shaw model to explore different sides of the theories of Gay Liberation, through clashes of ideas and experience.
I thought this would work among characters who worked in a university or around the university. The university in question is a hybrid Oxbridge.
It was absolutely not the sort of thing that Gay Sweatshop were looking for. They wanted affirmative political statements about the validity of gay life and the seriousness of gay struggles. They also didn’t want a play set among the intellectual elite.
I on the other hand always saw myself as a gadfly, someone who would hold a not very flattering mirror up to my friends and comrades and write about what gay life was ‘really’ like behind the slogans; that for all our swagger we were as uncertain, flawed and provisional as everyone else. This has been my stance pretty much ever since.
Where it was radical beneath its conservative format was in its clear-eyed assessment of the gay scene and how gay men relate to each other; our sexual opportunism, sexual uncertainties and even physical difficulties.
Audiences responded to it when it was finally premiered by Pub Theatre Company Birmingham in 1976. When Gay Sweatshop turned it down, I thought, “Fuck it. If you want something done, do it yourself.”
I was director of Pub Theatre Company in Birmingham from 1974 to 1978, so could pull rank to get it performed. The experience of being the lone gay, as I thought 1, in the company, and performing an in-your-face gay play for heterosexual audiences, made me want to work with gay companies in future.
Shortly afterwards I set up One in Ten Theatre based at Birmingham Gay Centre, the first Queer company outside London.
Latecomer received its second production there in 1978, and the show also went to the Annual Conference of the Campaign for Homosexual Equality in nearby Coventry.
When I came to London, Consenting Adults in Public also performed it in 1984, under the direction of the poet John Anstiss. It has also had productions in Canada, the US and Amsterdam, and remains my most performed piece.
I’m not quite sure why this should be, because reading it today, it seems very obviously a first play. Apart from its fairly clever construction, it reads like an adolescent’s private diary, full of testosterone-fuelled angst and wrestling with all those teenage questions about what being gay ‘really’ means.
It is full of attitudinal poses, accusations and counteraccusations, and its heated dialogue would not be out of place in one of the 1980s power series like Dynasty or, if you want to credit it with a bit more ‘savvy’, a late Ingmar Bergman Gloomfest.
But in an odd way it struck chords because it articulated all the questions we were posing to ourselves in private and discussing over late-night beers and coffees in universities and after discos before getting into bed with each other.
A whole range of attitudes to coming out, to sex, to the body and to politics was in evidence, and the questions were obviously the same the world over.
Latecomer needs a cast aged 20 to 28. The first production got nearest to that with me, Kevin and the two Mikes. In each successive production the casts got slightly further from ideal casting.
Coming back to it now, it would be much easier to find young people prepared to go for the dialogue, and for the nude scenes, but our standard company is aged 30 to 60, so we would have to spread the net wider.
I would be interested to see how well Latecomer stood the test of time. Would anyone else be interested?
Footnote: The production of Latecomer resulted in two of the actors in the cast embarking on a relationship which, ironically given the subject of the play, they kept secret. I only found this out years later.
Peter Scott-Presland (June 2021)
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Sex or Manners
In Eric Presland’s golden comedy there are four solid characters which do much to settle the hiccoughs of its potential gay audience. The scene is set at the gothic hour of midnight in a country abode ten miles from Ipswich. Simon and Colin are friends who have each picked up a companion for the night.
Enter Derek, an old acquaintance of Colin, who seems content to bed down on the floor alone in his sleeping bag. It is to wonder that the carpet is marked out like a tennis court, for the action which follows is a fast and furious game of will power. Sub-plot abounds and it is less a case of whodunnit and more a whodunnit to whom.
Presland says far more with his one-liners than the monologues his characters are set to grapple with. He examines the field of sexual identity, memory and upbringing with the deftness of an ace umpire. Just when we think all the characters have sorted themselves out, he throws another ball in for them to play with.
Jason Hart, as the sorry-for-himself Simon, turns in a performance of such a wilting wallflower that his final triumph he questions his motives and pronounces them devious.
Steve McKay's Colin is the spokesman with a problem which comes to light in a beautifully delivered monologue about the horrors of a twelve-year-old boy in a public lavatory.
The pivot of the piece is Derek with his unseen girlfriend Jane in the background. Richard Coles projects a bewilderment that he could ever find himself in such a situation. Will his unmasking prove his downfall?
Only Steve Charter's sexy Swede seems relaxed, especially when expounding his theory that there is no problem and why don't they just all get on with the business of making love.
Consenting Adults in Public have provided a backdrop of blue sky with white clouds which hopefully have silver linings, and much of the theme of the play is contained in a line of Simon's when he pouts: "It depends on what you were taught first. Sex or manners."
John Anstiss directed.
Roy Robert Smith, The Stage (1985)
Gay News review of the original Pub Theatre production in June 1977.