What A Complete Bastardography

“Gay, precocious and mentally unstable from an early age.” That’s how Simon Jay is described on the back of his memoir, Bastardography, and it’s also an apt description of his one-man show of the same name on at Theatre N16 in Balham. Jay hand picks a selection of experiences from his youth whether it’s a fellow kid turning a DIY flamethrower (Lynx can + lighter) on him for being gay or his obsession with the film Psycho and not forgetting his many dalliances with psychiatrists, psychologists and nurses as he skirts Borderline Personality Disorder. The result is a revealing romp through recent history with one of the funniest guides.

Jay isn’t even 30 and this isn’t his first show – his unique take on America’s latest dictator  president, Trumpageddon, sold out at the Fringe before hitting London, he’s put on a musical about a girl with a robot arm and he even collaborated with me on a series of monologues called Universally Speaking (they were particularly good) – but what’s most impressive about the guy isn’t his talent in directing, acting or writing, no, it’s his resilience. That the world threw so much shit at Jay and he turned it into this really rather fabulous production is testimony to his strength. He cracks many a joke, disregards the fourth wall, points out his penis collage, attempts to circle the stage in heels, is candid with his experiences and does all this to a soundtrack of Pocahontas, Glenn Miller and film quotes. Tickets here!

Margaret Thatcher spoke at the start of the play and her words stuck with me. It was her famous speech of 1987 in which she bemoaned the fact that “children are being taught they have an inalienable right to be gay” and subsequently “cheated of a sound start in life.” The next year she introduced a number of anti-gay laws including Section 28, that forbade any school from teaching that homosexual relationships are ‘acceptable’. Jay was born in 1987 and I was born in 1988. The law was eventually repealed in 2003, when I was fifteen. I wonder what it might have been like to grow up in a world where I had role models and cultural narratives to turn to and I imagine Jay wonders the same thing. Perhaps if things had been different we wouldn’t have been cheated of a sound start in life. So kudos to Jay for turning a legacy of hate into a queer, creative, mental health odyssey that, whilst very dark at times, always shines with love.

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G.B.F. And How To Educate Straight Folks The Funny Way

G.B.F. is just a fabulous movie: think Mean Girls meets a less offensive American Pie meets gay. It’s a classic high school tale with an LGBT twist as two gay friends, Tanner and Brent, struggle with coming out the closet. However, when Tanner is inadvertently outed by the exclusively heterosexual GSA (Gay Straight Alliance) he suddenly finds himself the centre of an awful lot of unwanted attention because it turns out everyone is dying to get a G.B.F – Gay Best Friend. Cue an abundance of brutal put-downs that only rival prom queens can dish out and a whole panoply of reactions to Brent’s gayness from the straight community.

These reactions include outright homophobia as the chief jock physically assaults Tanner and calls him a fag. There’s also religiously fuelled homophobia as one of the Mormon characters threatens him with eternal damnation. Then there are more subtle forms of discrimination in which Tanner is simultaneously lauded for his newly revealed homosexuality but objectified for it as well. Like the latest handbag many of the well-meaning but ignorant straight characters want to hang out with Tanner for the kudos it will bring them. However, what’s brilliant about this movie is that it doesn’t buy into obvious stereotypes as pretty much all the characters, even the ‘blond bimbo’ prom queen, are revealed to have multiple sides to their personalities that allow them to revel in the stereotype they are portrayed as whilst transcending it.

Because that’s the thing about stereotypes, they’re a bunch of characteristics that oppressors observe in an oppressed group, which are then turned into the defining features of that group. The oppressed group is then made to feel shame for possessing those features and stigmatised for doing so. So the oppressors get to have their stereotyping cake and eat it: they choose which traits to objectify a group with and then use them to reduce and victimise the oppressed. Not only is the gay guy who likes musicals and skinny jeans reduced to his penchant for those things he is then bullied for liking those things. It’s an endless cycle fuelled by ignorance and prejudice. But G.B.F. calls bullshit and revels in the skinny jeans and pop songs whilst also presenting the gay protagonists as brave, emotional and erratic people, i.e. as humans not just as tokenised extras. Yet it does take an awful long time for some of the straight characters to figure this out which is why this movie is perfect for those of all sexualities. For the straight folks out there who only know closets as the things clothes are put in see this movie as a fabulous and funny education in not objectifying LGBT people and valuing them as people. And for the queer folk out there know that one day the straights will catch up and whilst educating them can be a boring and relentless task it is much funnier when done with this movie.

Why I Love/Hate Black Mirror

I’ve been called a lot of things in my life. These include pessimist, joyful cynic, misanthrope and just the other week, faggot. And sure, if you read some of these blog posts you’ll see I have a pretty critical view of the world. I’m not overwhelmed by the capabilities of world leaders, I’m not hugely inspired by consumer capitalism’s track record and I hate war. But despite this I still like to believe that on the best of days I’m an optimist. I believe that all the answers we need we already have, some of them might be technologies (including ancient ones) but most of them are in us, especially in our hearts. I think the human being has a profound capacity for boundless love, altruism and kindness, and I just wished we lived in a world that made those things easy. Unfortunately, we don’t and this is where Black Mirror comes in and why I love to hate it and hate to love it.

A quick, spoilerful recap of the new series, which I just binge watched. There’s Hated In The Nation, a futuristic cop drama about a bunch of robo bees subtly representing the ‘stinging bees’ of the twittersphere and killing a bunch of people. Loved this one and it had all the hackneyed tropes of police procedurals – cynical, tech-illiterate older cop works with young, tech-savvy cop etc. It also has a really nasty journo who thrives off her online abuse but she’s only around for a couple of minutes. San Junipero was also ace, basically about humans’ inability to just die instead resigning themselves to a seemingly paradisiacal purgatory of endless themed discos or terrible kink clubs (I think I’ll just die, thanks). Men Against Fire had lots of soldiers, shooting and a big metaphor about the dehumanisation of the enemy, i.e. migrants, refugees, people from other countries. Playtest was kinda Inception meets shoddy horror movies and a dig at selfish, gap yah millennials who never call their parents. Shut Up And Dance, a grim take on shame-based blackmail that cashes in on a he’s-a-paedophile-twist.

Now, don’t get me wrong, these were all exceptionally well written, well acted and not necessarily subtle pieces of TV drama, I just get a bit annoyed that Charlie Brooker gets loads of acclaim for glibly documenting how terrible the world is. Isn’t there enough cynical and depressing media out there without a whole series of Black Mirror reminding us how venal and brutal we all are? I mean, anyone for a little hope on television? And that’s why my favourite episode was Nosedive. Not only did it establish that I have a hidden love for Bryce Dallas Howard that I did not know about (maybe because I loved The Village all those years ago) but I just thought it was spot on because in and amongst all the jabs at how selfish and self-absorbed the facebook millenials are there was also redemption. After Howard’s character, Lacie, loses all her popularity and ‘disgraces’ herself at her friend’s wedding she hits rock bottom. Her life nosedives and she ends up unpopular, lonelier than ever and in prison. But it’s there she learns how to let go as she starts a game of insult tennis with the guy in the opposite cell. Wouldn’t we all just love to yell ‘fuck you’ at a world so full of needless insecurities and anxiety-inducing social media? That’s when the episode ends and wonderfully that’s when it seems Lacie’s story begins because she’s thrown off the shackles of pretending everything’s fine and trying to constantly impress others and is learning how to be herself.

And I’ve certainly nosedived before: when I appeared to have lost so much of what I valued only to discover that what I valued was a whole load of bullshit. And even though it seemed like I’d lost everything it turned out that I hadn’t because I had to learn (the hard way) how to appreciate what really was of value in my life. I didn’t always get it right but I did try to learn from my mistakes. And I still have regular mini nosedives, never quite as bad as the ones before, but most of the time I know I can get through them and the low mood or period of difficulty will pass. If I’ve done it before I reckon I can do it again. And maybe little, self-contained nosedives can be useful for really reminding us what’s important. Nothing too big or too scary but a gentle wake up call to tell us to quit focusing on all the bad stuff, start recognising the good stuff and get back to fighting the patriarchy. Or maybe not and this is just me rambling. Either way, do watch Black Mirror. At times it’s violent and just cashes in on shock and at other times it’s joyfully cynical and just downright pessimistic but sometimes it has real heart.

Donald Trump Meets Mack The Knife

Mack the Knife is the psychopathic protagonist of Bertolt Brecht’s Threepenny Opera, now showing at the National Theatre in London. He’s misogynistic, greedy, ruthless arch-villain who is obsessed with money. Incidentally he has much in common with Donald Trump, currently doing the rounds in Trumpageddon at the King’s Head Theatre in Islington. One opera and a one-man show both painting bleak portraits of the world. The former a nihilistic, musical satire and the latter an ominous omen for things to come (but hopefully won’t).

The Threepenny Opera first. Wow. What a show. All singing, all dancing, with bits of set flying around the place, a band on stage, costumes to die for (and die in) and lots of jazzy smoke effects. It wasn’t quite Cabaret (but then again that’s a musical not an opera if we’re going to quibble) but Mack’s London is one of back stabbing, front stabbing and rape. It’s not a fun place to be and that’s the point. The joke’s on the audience as we’re mocked for wasting our cash on a show like this, a show full of low lifes and reprobates. Meanwhile, Brecht’s script does its best to ‘alienate’ us – “playing in such a way that the audience [is] hindered from simply identifying itself with the characters in the play. Acceptance or rejection of their actions and utterances [is] meant to take place on a conscious plane, instead of, as hitherto, in the audience’s subconscious” (Brecht). Yup, no sitting back and relaxing, instead we’re regularly reminded by the script that not only is this a play, what with characters shouting “scene change” and “interval”, but it’s also a visciously barbed reflection/refraction of the world we live in. Whilst that’s all well and good not being allowed to connect with the characters meant I didn’t really care what happened to them, especially Mack  as he was such an utter b*stard. It also didn’t help that Rory Kinnear, who plays Mack, couldn’t quite maintain his accent (was it meant to be Cockney or Russian or posh English?).

Someone who can maintain an accent is Simon Jay. His show Trumpegedden sold out at the Edinburgh Fringe and won many an accolade including an article in the Guardian and now it’s come down to London town. First I have to make a disclaimer: I know Simon (but I don’t know Kinnear) and think he’s a thoroughly good bloke but when I went to greet him before the show my arm was practically yanked off in a handshake from his orange faced, peroxide blond Trump. He was in character all night and it was terrifyingly brilliant. As he shoved his blond assistant around the stage, as he offended the audience, as he contradicted himself without qualm (often verbatim), so we were given a glimpse of an all too possible world should the real Trump win the vote in little over 50 days time! This will be a world of open hostility and violence that will be worse for women, the LGBTQIA community, people of the Muslim and Jewish faiths, people of colour and so many more. Basically anyone who isn’t white, male, American and rich. We’re fucking doomed if this guy wins and Mack’s dodgy London will appear a mere prelude to apocalypse. So share this new Avaaz thing to encourage US voters around the world to vote (even if they’re not in the US), go watch Simon’s play (next/last show Monday 19th September) and then swing by the NT if you fancy an opera (personally, I’d recommend Chicago).

Doing It With Victoria Wood

The hit British comedian, singer, songwriter, actor and all-around brilliant woman Victoria Wood sadly passed away on April 20th. Famous for Dinnerladies, her stand-up and a number of risqué numbers she was a genius of comedy. And so I found myself watching The Ballad of Barry and Freda, one of Wood’s musical numbers that tells the tale of a couple. They’re sitting at home one evening watching the telly when Freda gets the urge to get physical, meanwhile, Barry’s got the urge to go to bed. And so the song continues as Freda tries to convince Barry to have a bit of sex whilst Barry comes up with a number of increasingly ridiculous excuses to avoid getting intimate. The song sings for itself so here it is:

It’s a comic number but as I listened to Victoria Wood sing, knowing that she had passed away, I couldn’t help but feel that there’s also something quite tragic about this song. Freda’s desire to grab life by the balls and do it is truly inspiring whilst Barry just seems like a wimp. He has all these reasons not to, worried he’ll “get it wrong”, worried he doesn’t have the strength, worried about the state of the roof, but I can’t help but think these aren’t valid reasons to avoid Freda’s offer of, what sounds like, the promise of some scorching intercourse (“slap me on the bottom with a Woman’s Weekly”. Yes please!). I think Barry’s just making excuses because he’s afraid.

And how often do we do that? Make up excuses to avoid having to get down and dirty, and I’m not just talking about shagging, I’m talking about living. There are times when fear really is the right response and not doing something is eminently sensible but I’m talking about those experiences just on the edge of your comfort zone not the ones in your panic zone. Those experiences that might take a little effort but would prove totally worth it. I can’t help but think having sex with Freda is one such experience for Barry. Yet the song ends before we know if they do it but I hope they do. I hope Barry’s heart starts pumping and he too opts to grab life by the balls (or, indeed, the boobies) because they say that the magic happens at the edge of your comfort zone and it sounds like Freda has an awful lot of magic to share with Barry (I mean, “smear some avocado on my lower portions”!). So here’s to doing it, to being like Freda and just going for it, and inspiring others to go for it too.

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