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 The law was eventually repealed in 2003, when I was fifteen.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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Angels In America Is So Gay

Angels In America: A Gay Fantasia On National Themes is an epic play. It’s epic in length: together Parts 1 and 2 come to some eight hours of stage time. It’s epic in theme: it combines the AIDS crisis with Reaganite politics with tales of migration with unrest in heaven. It’s epic in presentation: angels descend from the skies, burning books rise through the floors and ghosts prance about on stage. It’s so epic in fact that I think it counts as a modern-day myth – it hones in so painfully close on the intimate details of the characters’ unhappy lives that we end up passing through their blood cells only to see stars. Not to mention its exploration of the history of the Jewish people in America, the impacts of the religion of neoliberal capitalism a la Reagan and the pain of being homosexual in a straight man’s world. Not forgetting the ghosts, heavenly hosts and valium-induced trips to Antarctica either! That really is epic.

I saw Part 1 at London’s National Theatre last night. It comes in three sections (we had two intervals!) and I’d say the first third is pretty tepid as the odd set of giant Lego-like structures jars with the up-close introduction to the protagonists. The second third gets a little warmer as the actors get into role (and I stopped comparing it with the epic HBO series which had Meryl Streep, Al Pacino and Emma Thompson, tough to beat), even if they did rely a little too much on shouting at other. It’s the third third that blew me away as the seams of reality start to unravel, the Lego bricks get pushed backstage and the sh*t hits the fan. This is when the epic got epic.

Set in 1985 and written in 1993 Angels In America is, in many ways, a period piece but one that still resonates today. It explores the early years of a politico-economic order that we have inherited and isn’t doing well. As one character tells us towards the end of Part 1, “History is about to crack wide open. Millennium Approaches.” So we’re living on the other side of Millennium and very much plunging into the crack, and not the sort of crack you might plunge into on a night stroll through Central Park. Whilst some of the characters appear to be cliché, for example, Belize the sassy, black drag queen (who only gets to steal one scene in Part 1 but will come back with a vengeance in Part 2), I think kudos is due to playwright Tony Kushner for inventing these clichés before they were clichés. However, I think both these concerns are reminders that we need more gay fantasias, lots more. Queer ones too and lesbian and trans and asexual and intersex and as multi-coloured as possible. We also need plays to remind us that today many people live with HIV and live very happily. Of course, many do not and the medication is still not widely available and there is just far too much stigma, as Angels aptly demonstrates. And that’s the thing about myths, while they are embedded in a certain time and place, say, Ancient Rome, a galaxy far, far away or 1980s New York, and focus on certain people’s lives they have the ability to transcend all this and echo throughout the ages. They appear universal because they tap deep into the human condition, a condition that might regularly change its clothes but still beats the same, dark blood. We might learn our lessons one day but in the mean time we can dance with those angels in America (bring on Part 2).

Meaningless Millenials: Clique & Search Party

Life can seem quite meaningless for millennials these days as we’re forced to jump through the increasingly outdated hoops of school all for the sake of one day getting an adult job. However, much debt later and those dream jobs tend to be unpaid internships or going the way of automisation. Meanwhile, Trump, Brexit, climate change etc etc…what do we do!? It’s no surprise then that this nihilistic turn ends up influencing popular culture. Two examples include recent mystery based dramas with Gen Y protagonists, Search Party (TBS) and Clique (BBC). For the former think Nancy Drew meets mid-twenties millennial malaise with a side of Gone Girl and the latter is a less funny Mean Girls meets The Secret History with Scottish accents. Both have meaninglessness at their hearts but for two very different reasons. Oh, and head’s up, there will be spoilers.

Search Party tells the story of Dory, not the forgetful fish, but a 20s something woman living in New York who lacks direction and purpose in life. Naturally, she goes looking for this by going looking for Chantal – an old college acquaintance who is now a missing person. Cue hunting for clues, curious suspects, intriguing red herrings and a whole cast of amazing characters – from her endlessly self-absorbed rich friends to a cult-load of ‘wellness-seeking’ weirdos. Dory’s 21st century world is exceptionally bleak but also very, very funny. Clique takes itself a little more seriously as young students and lifelong friends, Holly and Georgie, fall out over getting in with the in-crowd: four conventionally beautiful young women who have looks and banking internships to die for (literally in the case of one of them who kills herself in episode one). The characters here are familiar clichés: the charismatic lecturer who lures the impressionable young women in with her force of character (and questionable brand of feminism) and the attractive people who do glamorous things (e.g. take drugs, jump into swimming pools with their clothes on, have chauffeurs etc) but aren’t actually that interesting. However, what’s great about Clique is that it’s going all out to fail the Mechdel test – the male equivalent of the Bechdel test – as the guys are left to be annoying, peripheral characters and the occasional bare butt shot.

So both shows are full of selfish and sometimes vacuous characters, however, I’d say Search Party is knowingly presenting them as such in order to skewer them in parody. It takes a mirror to Gen Y’s obsession with selfies, celebrity and self-promotion, and reminds us that it’s all paper-thin (whilst also mistressfully weaving this trope into the denouement). Meanwhile, I feel Clique is being a little more earnest in its vacuity and trying to convince us that, like Holly and Georgie, we really should want to join the clique of coke-snorting, unpaid yet highly attractive interns who don’t say much of interest and are forced to work for/with complete chauvinists. But that’s the thing with cliques – cool from a distance but kinda disappointing once you’re inside. Although I’m not convinced Holly is all that convinced of the clique either so, with three episodes to go, there’s still plenty of time for biting, poignant cultural critique a la Search Party.

Interestingly, one thing lacking in both these tales of millennial woe are significant adult figures. Search Party has the odd wellness guru and disinterested, rich parent, whilst Clique has got the over-zealous lecturer and her weird brother but I feel both series are missing a trick because without adults who can the Gen Yers blame for all our problems? Let’s face it without the baby boomers we millennials wouldn’t be here. Without their inventions, businesses, advertising agencies and super-charged model of consumer capitalism where on earth would we go to struggle to find meaning and purpose? I mean if they’d invested in sustainable energy, steady-state economic models and put community before profit then Dory and Holly probably would have already found themselves and wouldn’t need to go on dangerous mystery adventures. Likewise, their friends would probably spend more time looking out for one another and not wasting so much time setting up faux-charitable initiatives to boost their fragile self-esteems or chasing the next high-functioning sociopath with a six-pack. And nor would everyone be stone broke and forced to pay too much rent because we’d have caps on renting or, who knows, maybe all housing would be social housing. And freaky wellness cults run by overly charismatic yet dubious people who wear too much expensive jewellery wouldn’t need to be invented because we’d all probably be quite happy sharing stuff and looking out for one another. Who’d need an exclusive clique when we’d all have community. Anyways, just a thought. Now quick, back to Instagram!

Fantastic Fascists And Where To Find Them

Yup, finally got round to watching the new Harry Potter film and, boy, does that franchise keep shamelessly chundering on. At least it was sufficiently entertaining and now for some spoilers. Ok, so the plot’s simple: Eddy Redmayne does his trademark stuttering and blinking thing whilst travelling to New York with a bunch of magic creatures in a suitcase. Turns out New Yorkers aren’t very keen on magicians so the magic crew all live in secret and there’s a bunch of outspoken religious loons who preach against witches. There’s also this weird black hurricane mist thing that’s going around terrorising US citizens and trashing buildings. Everyone thinks it’s one of Redmayne’s magic beasts because he spends most of the film letting them escape and having to find them (seriously, buy a new fucking suitcase with a padlock). However, it’s actually an Obscurus. A what? That’s right, it’s the new magic plot device and it turns out that if a kid is forced to suppress their magic, perhaps because their Mom is a quasi-Mormon, witch-hating loon, then all the pent-up magic becomes a ball of dark energy. Fyi, big spoiler ahead. Whilst we spend most of the film thinking the Obscurus is a little girl it actually turns out to be a teenage guy with a bowl haircut. Now for the analogy with fascism.

The young guy and his pent-up aggression are a metaphor for the rise of the alt right, aka fascists. It’s the slow build up of tension as those who’ve ridden off the back of a certain amount of privilege – namely being white and male – are made to feel increasingly angry for the things they don’t have – like lots of money and jobs – and are encouraged to direct that anger at convenient scapegoats – for example, women, people of colour, Muslims, LGBT folk or Muggles. And they are manipulated by those similar to them in appearance, namely white and male (in the case of the film it’s Colin Farrell), but who actually have far more power (Farrell turns out to be Grindelwald, an evil uber-wizard, not to mention the odd homosexual undertone between Grindelwald and the teenage guy because aren’t all older gay men just manipulative perverted villains, cheers JK). Then before you know it all that rage explodes and the young guy’s off on a killer rampage around NY blowing things up. None of this is new though, the fascists have been around for a long time, unleashing violence and hate at whim, and both Brexit and Trump have just emboldened them (curiously both Trump and Grindelwald have bottle dye blond hair).

Apparently Rowling has planned four more Fantastic Beasts films and I guess we’ll just have to watch as magical movies start to reflect real life a little too closely as the alt right fascists (seriously, “alternative” right, there’s nothing alternative about being an utter twat) continue their rise to power, playing on those age-old prejudices that just will not go away. Of course, we could learn our lessons and realise that capitalism is inherently exploitative and unsustainable and rigged in the favour of an elite few. Perhaps all that suppressed rage could be channelled into building a new system because when this one comes crumbling down, as it’s already doing, there won’t be wizards at the end to wave a magic wand and fix all the damage. No, many of us will be dead, beaten up or bereaved and another Fantastic Beasts movie won’t make any fucking difference. Also, it’s 2016 – why are we still watching four white, straight, cisgendered leads steal the show? Come on JK! Other than that I quite enjoyed it.

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.

The HIV Monologues

On 24th May 1988 the authorities decreed that any local authority in the UK “shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homsexuality…or promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship.” This was Section 28 of the Local Government Act and so a generation of children, myself included, were subjected to yet more homophobia and a complete lack of education in how to live a happy, flourishing and safe LGBTQIA life. On 21st June 2000 Scotland repealed this abysmal amendment and the rest of the UK caught up by 18th November 2003. But we haven’t really caught up because there is still so far to go and that’s where The HIV Monologues come in (a few spoilers ahead).

This was never going to be an easy play to watch and it wasn’t but not because it was terribly acted, far from it, but because it’s about HIV. It’s a seemingly simple story about Alex and Nick who are out on a Tinder date. It’s going really well until Nick says that he is HIV positive. Moments later and Alex gets stuck in a window trying to escape and Nick is pretty pissed off. Denholm Spurr makes a great Alex – insecure, selfish but irritatingly cute. He’s one of those likable unlikable characters, a bit like Fleabag from the hit BBC show, and as the story unfolds we do come to care about him. Meanwhile, Sean Hart portrays Nick’s despair, resolve and power brilliantly as he comes to terms with the new normal of his life. The monologues do occasionally become dialogues and when Spurr and Hart are on stage together the chemistry works (more on that in the next paragraph). I also absolutely loved Irene the Irish nurse played by Charly Flyte, who was treating AIDS in the 1980s. A presumably straight woman, she befriends one of her gay, male patients and takes up the cause. A scene in which she tells a bunch of salivating journalists what shame really is was just fantastic and I felt it a shame her character was only met once as she clearly had a life and story of her own that I wanted to know more about. Then there was Barney played by Jonathan Blake who had me crying before he’d even said anything. Blake (not Barney) was one of the first people to be diagnosed with HIV in the UK (and he was played by Dominic West in Pride) and his depiction of Barney was spot on as the partner to one of Irene’s patients. Warm, funny and quietly powerful Barney/Blake is someone I’d like to go for a drink with.

For me the most powerful scene was when Nick aPicturend Alex are on stage together, hiding in the toilets of G-A-Y about to have sex. Alex has just finished performing in an important play about HIV funded by the Elton John AIDS Foundation (hint, hint, come on Elton, get your wallet out). But neither of them have any condoms. Instead, Alex says he’s got a pill and Nick’s confused because he’s already taken his anti-HIV pill (of which there are many different types that reduce the viral load of HIV and allow the immune system to repair itself, start here to find out more) but Alex is taking PrEP: Pre-exposure prophylaxis, which prevents HIV infection. I’ll repeat that, it prevents HIV infection. And what ensues is a beautifully described moment in which Alex and Nick enjoy having sex together for the first time. Of course, in the world of the play and the real world PrEP is still not accessible on the NHS and people who don’t have access to the medication nor the appropriate education are still needlessly contracting the virus. As I said, even with the repeal of Section 28 we still haven’t caught up.
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The HIV Monologues are on this Thursday & Friday, get your tickets here. Asides being brilliantly acted the monologues are well crafted and poignant pieces of writing by Patrick Cash and director Luke Davies evokes a whole rainbow of emotions from his cast. The stage and lights are also fab. So, no excuse, go, go, go. Be entertained, get educated and then go do what you can: help ACT UP in the fight to get PrEP mainstreamed, support your friends who might be at risk of getting HIV or who have it and educate everyone else, straight or gay, who has missed out on years of vital education. And then one day we’ll all meet at that epic G-A-Y after party funded by Elton John!

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).