A new play about modern gay love and relationships opens in London next week.
Counterfeit Skin, by Jason Charles, explores the interplay between lovers, friends, family and rivals and in the process confronts deception, desire, greed, obsession and disappointment.
Much of the drama focuses on Luke and Jake, a young couple living with Jake’s gay godfather, who are questioning their long-term relationship.
Luke constantly needs reassurance, which Jake resents. A much more sexual person, Jake lives mostly in a world of erotic fantasies his boyfriend cannot fulfil.
Then there is Mach, the new young, nubile and flirtatious receptionist at the confectionery company owned by Leo, Jake’s godfather.
Mach spends his time searching internet chat rooms for ‘clients’ to visit after work – until he realises the effect he has on his middle-aged boss.
But when Leo invites his provocative young receptionist over for dinner one evening it shakes Jake’s cosy daily routine.
Once in the house, Mach has no intention of leaving until he gets exactly what he wants.
Earlier this week PinkNews.co.uk went along to rehearsals and met the playwright, director Kirrie Wratten and two of the play’s young stars.
James Kristian, who readers may recognise from his role as Allen (Little Al) in Channel 4’s hit drama AS IF, clearly relishes playing the cocky and impetuous Jake.
While possessed of the sort of toned, tanned physique and chiselled features that the casting directors of Hollyoaks invariably clamour for, James is uninterested in the Heat magazine fame factory.
“I just want to work all the time, I always said that to myself,” he explains.
“If I could just earn a living as an actor, that’s the main thing.
“Of course I think as actors get more successful and do more stuff then recognition starts to happen.
“It depends. Different people handle it in different ways.
“I mean you see those actors, who just might be huge actors, and they sit in dingy old boozers and no one cares, but you see other actors that start to go to clubs and they play on their fame.
“But as long as I’m working, that’s it, I’m happy.”
James is clearly enthused about the role of Jake in a play he calls “absolutely amazing.”
“He can be a bit cutting and cocky with the people that love him the most, and it’s not very nice to see, but he does have reasons for the way he behaves,” he explains.
“I’d like to think that he doesn’t seem that one-sided when you watch the whole play, when you understand why he behaves in a certain way, but he is a bit of an arsehole sometimes.
“Jake’s character … he very much has had everything his own way his whole life.
“He’s got this godfather who has lavished him with attention and I think he’s almost been never been told ‘no.'”
But everything does not go his way when Mach arrives to upset the long-settled domestic arrangements.
One memorable scene has Mach naked in the bath, teasing Jake and openly flirting with him.
James Trueman beams nonchalantly when asked if he is nervous about the nudity required of him in this scene.
Mach character is the catalyst for much of the drama and a lot of the comedy in Counterfeit Skin.
“He is quite an extrovert,” he says, having finished rehearsals and put his clothes back on.
“He is a lot of fun to play but there’s, with all the characters actually, there’s the two sides to them.
“I think especially in the third act there’s a much darker side to Mach that emerges.”
James, who in the past has played everything from the Cowardly Lion in the Wizard of Oz to Lysander in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, brings a free-spirited approach to Mach that extends to full-frontal nudity.
“I don’t actually mind,” he says earnestly.
“I’m not funny about things like that for some reason.
“It’s just the same as stripping off in the changing rooms at the swimming pool or something but there’s just more people there. That’s how I see it anyway.
“At drama school you’re always having to strip off in front of others so it just becomes like second nature.
“You don’t really think about it.”
James is enthusiastic about the venue, the Courtyard Theatre in Hoxton, north London, which seats only seventy people.
That intense intimacy between actors and audience is particularly suited to a play such as Counterfeit Skin where many of the scenes are two-handers in a domestic setting.
“I think it helps with the naturalism,” explains James.
“When I’ve worked in small venues before, because you bring it down, it’s more internal, it’s more naturalistic automatically.
“You’re not having to throw it out to people. It’s not that big. It’s more inside you.”
Luke (Jonathan Laury) and Jake (James Kristian)
Director Kirrie Wratten declares herself “very happy” with how rehearsals are going and she finds it hard to conceal her genuine excitement about the production design by Aaron Marsden, who worked on hit film Moulin Rouge.
Kirrie confides that Aaron’s creative vision has extended far beyond the sets.
“Somehow in the Courtyard space, he has made for us 12 different locations including a bath and Covent Garden – we get to go to the ballet! It’s extraordinary.
“He’s done a really amazing job and he’s got such an eye for detail.
“So the poor guys are not even allowed to wear what underpants they want! Everything has to be thought about.”
It turns out Aaron, clearly something of a perfectionist, even popped into rehearsal to wax the chest of James Trueman, to ensure he looks as boyish as possible as Mach.
Playwright Jason Charles’ previous work includes STEAM, which performed to sold-out houses and rave reviews at the White Bear and Barons Court theatres in 2006 and 2007.
Jason, like many writers, is reluctant to pigeonhole his work but when pressed settles for describing Counterfeit Skin as “a darkly comic thriller.”
That is not to say the play is all dark. Indeed there are many comic moments, mostly provided by the child-man Mach.
“I think the audience are led into a false sense of security because the first half of the play is sort of a camp comedy,” Jason explains, warming to the theme.
“But it takes a very dark route after that and it becomes much more of a psychological thriller.
“I really like plays that do that – you don’t know what you’re getting, even half way through you still don’t really know what you’re getting.
“I think it’s very interesting for a narrative to do that. So I find it difficult to put what I write into genres but I’d say, psychological thriller with a comic edge. But then is it maybe comedy with a dark edge?”
He rejects the suggestion that finding amusement with the world is a specifically gay trait.
“The world is very absurd. Life is absurd. So I suppose that’s reflected in my writing. Because I think about big themes all the time and I try to put the big things into the writing.”
Alongside the machinations of the younger characters, there is Leo.
Middle-aged and adoptive figure to a gay child, he has no illusions about why the mercurial Mach sleeps with him.
Despite the topicality of gay adoption and parenting, there is nothing stereotypical about the character, and in many ways his story is the most fascinating.
“He’s a gay man but I don’t think being gay has ever really settled well with him,” says Jason.
“I don’t think he’s properly swallowed the fact that he’s gay even at this point in his life.
“In his mid-20s he was in a relationship but got the opportunity to adopt a young baby and I think he saw that as a road to getting more fulfillment in his life.
“Going down the whole family road with adopting the baby, being sort of the father figure, was a much more fulfilling way to go.
“It was very naive of him because he thought Jake was going to fulfill all these needs for a family and the need to be a father figure, but of course that’s quite naive – to expect a child to be what you want it to be.”
Love and loyalty, betrayal and deceit, temptation and desire, exhilaration and disappointment.
In Counterfeit Skin Jason Charles questions our understanding of the meaning of love, explores what men are prepared to risk and ponders modern-day gay mores.
Counterfeit Skin is playing at the Courtyard Theatre, 40 Pitfield Street, London, N1 6EU from 22nd January to 10th February 2008.
Tickets cost £12 or £15 and can be bought from seetickets.com or by calling 0870 1630717.
Performances start at 7:30pm. No Monday performances.