This is a production that I badly wanted to watch, with such a vital topic and critical messages that I, and more importantly, those in the LGBTQ+ community, are desperate for people to hear. Alas, on the opening week, I was busying myself in a show of similar heft which told the ever-so-important tale of a certain John McClane. With a slightly clearer schedule though, I was delighted to be able to witness the product of Director, Michelle Hutchings’ work just before the curtain comes down on the production for the final time, as well as those of the seven talented performers of course.
Now, in writing my reviews, as a performer myself, I tend to focus more on probably what those involved in the production want you to comment on - their skill as actors, their delivery, their ability to stir up emotions in you etc. This can sometimes mean I’m guilty of glossing over the themes of the production – not so with Queers, however.
In a week where a petition to remove LGBT content from the curriculum in primary schools approached 200,000 signatures, despite all the undoubted progress made since the passing of the Sexual Offences Act of 1967, the anniversary of which was the catalyst for the monologues in this production being curated, it tells you that there’s still plenty more to be done to overcome the ignorance, intolerance, and inequality still being felt today.
But this wasn’t a collection of stern monologues simply telling us all how we need to improve. They were gentle, touching, at times witty, and most of all, illuminating.
It opened with Dean Kenneth as Perce (The Man on the Platform – Mark Gatiss), a soldier in The Great War who made the mistake of falling for his captain. Sat unassumingly in a chair in the corner of the stage, Dean delivered an incredibly magnetic performance. Such was Dean’s superb storytelling ability, you completely forgot that he hadn’t once moved from his chair. What he gave was a masterclass in naturalistic delivery – no movement for movements’ sake or flamboyant, ‘stagey’ gestures, just a truthful, gentle recollection of a beautiful and painful moment in his life.
Next up was Poppy Hiscox as Bobby (The Perfect Gentleman – Jackie Clune), another character whose real self was kept concealed beneath the safety net of being an apparent gentleman. Poppy was supremely confident in her delivery, and crushingly raw when it came to recounting her tale of rejection. Like a gentleman (of the time, I might add), she never gave way to her emotion fully, instead throwing us the odd bawdy line to stop us in our tracks, and it was a wonderful example of restraint when the temptation would have been to overplay the character.
Zanna Foley-Davies (Missing Alice – Jon Bradfield) also barely moved on stage, but her captivating skill, her mastery of the language, the conversational style, and her warmth, meant it was like nodding along while a pal pours their heart out to you in a pub. It was an exceptional performance from Zanna as Alice, who unwittingly marries a gay man.
In the final monologue of the first half, I Miss the War by Matthew Baldwin, Jonathan Cooke gave us a wonderfully entertaining display as the flamboyant tailor, Jack. His character seemingly bemoans the openness with which gay men can, in his view, carry themselves, and pines for his youth where he enjoyed a more illicit-seeming lifestyle. It turns out though that what he really is pining for is his lost love that he met during the war, and Jonathan, with a brilliant ability to change the pace, really takes us on an emotional journey, showing a much more tender side to the character.
If you were feeling sleepy after a drink at the interval, Ben Noble as actor Phil (More Anger – Brian Fillis) was on hand to shake you up. His character spoke to us with the backdrop of the Aids epidemic looming over the gay community, and Ben took us through his painful experience of seeing someone he loved fall victim to the disease, and his anger at the vilification of gay men by the media. It was a terrific performance from Ben, completely at odds with the style of the other monologues, but perfectly matched the tone of feeling in the 1980s.
In amongst the monologues, was a newly-devised piece highlighting issues with trans persons and their struggles. It was called Sequins on the Floor, and was co-written by Michelle Hutchings, Jen Alexander and Clare Williamson. It was performed beautifully by Jen herself, recounting her own experiences (mostly) of life as Vivian and then her struggles fitting in with the gay community. It was equal parts heartbreaking and triumphant, and though I’ve come to expect a superb performance from Jen having worked with and seen her in a number of productions, this particular piece took an extra bit of poise, which Jen was able to manage brilliantly.
The final monologue (Something Borrowed – Gareth McLean) was performed by Seàn Bennett, as a man preparing for a speech at his wedding. Although the fact that we were seeing two men being married was a measure of progress, Seàn as Steve recounted the painful bullying he endured growing up in what was meant to be a more progressive era. It was a subtle, funny, and very moving performance.
There was final short speech given at the end by Jen Alexander, a kind of rallying cry, urging us all to keep fighting the good fight, raising awareness and being an ally. It gave a real poignancy to the whole collection and helped give us all a good shake-up and to remember the message this production is trying to convey.
The whole collection was a triumph from start to finish, and for a directorial debut, Michelle Hutchings can be so proud of what she achieved. Though it seems a bit trivial by comparison to the urgent messages within the show, I feel a special mention must also go to the set designers/builders for recreating a pub setting with such skill and detail. It’s a bit late for me to say this is a production that shouldn’t be missed, but I’ll instead simply congratulate everyone that’s worked on the production for such a magnificent piece of theatre.