QUEERS (Set B)
The Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Friday 12th May 2023
This series of eight monologues, presented in two batches of four, is an excellent showcase of the talented actors and directors of the Crescent. Simply staged (a bar and a couple of pub tables with stools) the monologues come across as one-sided conversations, the sort you might have with a stranger in a pub. Part history, part confessional, the pieces are perhaps revelations for straight members of the audience; for the gays, it is a reminder of lived experience and the struggles of those who came before us.
First up in this batch, we meet Jack (I Miss The War by Matthew Baldwin), an old-school homosexual, a former soldier, now a tailor, at the time of the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1967. Played by Graeme Braidwood, Jack is dapper, well-preserved, and thoroughly acerbic in his observations and recollections, employing polari and innuendo in a manner that would make Kenneth Williams proud. If you don’t know, polari is the arcane slang used by gays as a means to recognise each other. For example, ‘the palone with the butch riah’ is a reference to Julie Andrews. Braidwood coats vulnerability with brassiness, and there’s a darkness behind the bonhomie.
Next, in More Anger by Brian Fillis, we meet Phil (Mark Shaun Walsh) a jobbing actor who is typecast as young men dying of AIDS. It’s the 1980s and the ‘gay plague’ is rampant, thanks in part to the poor response of the government of the time. Phil lands a potentially ground-breaking role as a soap opera’s first gay character, who is non-camp and absolutely not ill, but the character turns out to be beiger than a buffet at a heterosexual wedding. Meanwhile, his lover announces he is HIV positive, a death knell in those frightening times. The piece concludes with a ferocious tirade. Mark Shaun Walsh is utterly convincing, drawing us in with his amiability, so when he lets rip, we empathise with his rage (and then it’s revealed that it’s another acting job, with a clever punchline.)
Walsh directs the third piece: A Grand Day Out by Michael Dennis, in which 17-year old Andrew tells us of a trip to London at the time of the sexual equality bill that oh-so-generously lowered the homosexual age of consent from 21 to 18. This gives rise to scenes of mild protest outside the House of Commons and Andrew is thrilled to take part. Andrew is an innocent, finding his way in the world and exploring his sexuality. It’s a winning performance by Francis Quinn, endearing, funny, and touching. Society may have made some giant strides (and fairy steps) in the right direction, but that doesn’t prevent Andrew from feeling the universal gay fear that his parents will reject him when they find out.
Next comes Something Borrowed by Gareth McLean, with Peter Neenan as Steve, preparing a speech for his wedding to (gasp) another man, thanks to a change in the law in 1994. As he rehearses, Steve reflects on the way people like him were absent from the stories he heard or read growing up. As well as fretting about wedding preparations, he has to deal with his own doubts. Does he really want what the straights have always had? Isn’t that surrendering part of what it is to be gay? He is reluctant to hold his beloved’s hand in a supermarket, until he is told that a gay child, happening to see such a public demonstration between two men, might be given hope and comfort. It’s the most understated of these four pieces, but just as thoughtful.
I’m too young to remember the decriminalisation, but I have vivid memories of the terrifying ad campaigns of Thatcher’s reign and how they affected my own…emergence. The evening gets me trolling down Memory Lane and looking ahead to how far we still have to go.
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Coming of age, Francis Quinn as Andrew in A Grand Day Out (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)
QUEERS (Set A)
The Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Saturday 13th May 2023
The other set of four monologues kicks off with The Man on the Platform, by Mark Gatiss (who actually compiled this anthology for the BBC). We meet Perce, a soldier home from the so-called Great War. He reflects on his relationship with a captain he met in a military hospital tent, and how, when discovered, they were both transferred to other regiments. More striking is his boyhood memory of seeing Oscar Wilde under arrest at Reading station, being taken away. A brief moment of eye contact with the disgraced writer stays with young Perce forever, mutual recognition of ‘a certain liquidity in the eyes’. It’s a sad piece, played to perfection by Tom Lowde, making you want to give Perce a hug or at least buy him a pint.
Next comes The Perfect Gentleman by Jackie Clune. Bobby is a Burlington Bertie figure, all top hat and tails, swanning around, picking up women in pubs and taking them out the back and fingering them! Dressed as a man, Bobby feels a freedom to behave in a way that a woman could never countenance. Sadly, living this lie has its…shortcomings, shall we say? An exploratory female hand reveals Bobby isn’t pleased to see her, it’s a candle! Katie Goldhawk is utterly charming in her dapper costume, balancing exquisite manners with ribald revelations, conjuring other characters with skilful ease, using her voice alone. Again, the sadness of the piece is inescapable.
Safest Spot in Town by Keith Jarrett brings us up to the 1940s. Among the dropping bombs, Fredrick from Jamaica seeks out like-minded men in the public toilets of the West End. Denied access to an underground venue because of his skin colour, he escapes destruction, a case of being excluded working in his favour! Khari Moore is instantly delightful as the twinkly-eyed Fredrick. Our laughter comes thick and fast, perhaps as a release from the melancholy of the previous pieces, but mainly from Moore’s elegantly timed anecdotes and reactions. Easily the most overtly funny piece of this set, it points up Fredrick’s double whammy of exclusion, as a black man who is gay. Society has moved on in leaps and bounds since then, hasn’t it? Has it?
Finally comes Missing Alice by Jon Bradfield. Fi Cotton plays Alice, a middle-aged married woman who didn’t realise until long past the wedding night that the man she has married is, you know. At first, she blames herself and starts to cut down on meals in a bid to make herself more attractive. All her efforts are doomed but over time, she and her husband come to an accommodation. It turns out there can be love and affection in a sexless marriage. Fi Cotton is splendid; you can easily see her tackling an Alan Bennett.
Of course, I saw the two sets of monologues in the ‘wrong’ order, in terms of chronology, but I don’t think this has diluted my enjoyment of these well-written pieces, superbly performed and presented in the Crescent’s Ron Barber Studio. What comes across is the misery and heartache spread by the criminalisation of homosexuality throughout the ages. We live in more enlightened times. I hope.
A different Q word springs to mind: Quality.
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Khari Moore as the debonair Fredrick (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)