Review - The Twentieth Century Way (Jermyn Street Theatre)

Tom Jacobson’s calculated and intuitive The Twentieth Century Way is unassuming yet intriguing, and jolts to life in its UK premier, under the direction of Marylynne Anderson-Cooper.

James Sindall and Fraser Wall as Warren and Brown
Photo credit - Laura Hyatt
Two actors waiting for an audition engage in a drawn out, high stakes improvisation exercise. The characters that they invent for themselves; police employed ‘vice specialists’ Brown and Warren, embark on a undercover operation to root out homosexual men within the elite of 1914 Long Beach society, by enticing men to engage in blowjobs (also known as ‘the twentieth century way’ owing to their prevalence as a result of increased public cleanliness at the beginning of the twentieth century) in public bathrooms before marking them with a black cross and arresting them for social vagrancy. While inventing and exploring a multitude of different roles, Brown and Warren begin to empathise with their characters, and a harrowing element of gay rights history bubbles to the forefront.

As the improvisation goes on, the pair find themselves inventing more and more new characters, and switch between them at such a pace that it almost becomes impossible to tell where Brown and Warren end and their creations begin. In fact, at points is seems like even they forget, albeit briefly, that their exercise is just a game. The resulting performances are enthralling, with a sustained tenseness permeating the whole piece.

Inescapable tenseness is amplified by Peter Harrison’s evocative lighting, meanwhile Joyce Rose Anne Robustelli’s fine production design, complete with canny suggestive costume elements which help to keep the audience up to speed with the often frantic switching of characters and locations, is simplistic yet aesthetically effective.

Actors Fraser Wall and James Sindall play off each other extraordinarily well, with Wall bringing an absorbing nervous energy to Brown, while Sindall’s stoicism as Warren is interspersed with moments of terseness, adding yet another layer to the piece. As a duo they are exciting to watch, seamlessly switching from one character to another and relying on their canny audience keep up with them. The brisk pace is handled deftly, and clarity is almost always present.  

At times though, The Twentieth Century Way’s gay rights focus is overshadowed by the piece’s framing device, and the overarching exploration of acting as an art form does occasionally derail the characters' fabricated plot at critical moments.

Crucially though, The Twentieth Century Way simmers with riveting tension before delivering a surprising final twist. It rewards its shrewd audience members with a satisfying finale, and despite moments of wittiness, maintains a fitting solemnity throughout.

For more information about this production of The Twentieth Century Way, visit