F*cking Men And Passengers

One a play at the Vaults Theatre in London about the lives of ten gay men, the other a Hollywood romance about a decidedly straight couple falling in love as they zoom through outer space. The former is a great piece of writing accompanied by some wonderful acting and the latter is actually surprisingly good given that it’s a romance at zero gravity. However, as I watched these productions I felt I had seen them before albeit in different locations: men f*cking in Manchester for example and straight couples falling in love, well, pretty much everywhere. And it was the way the scripts unfolded that disturbed me the most (spoilers).

F*king Men introduced us to a world of brief encounters between men in dark parks, closeted professionals worried their careers would collapse if they out themselves, put upon sex workers and porn stars, HIV stigma and homophobia. It was also a world full of laughter, love and heart as different individuals and couples tried to make it work in a world where guys just seem to want to f*ck all the time. Meanwhile, in Passengers there’s only room for two straight people as Chris Pratt and J-Law discover they’ve woken up ninety years before the spaceship has reached its destination. As it turns out Pratt woke up first, then, a year later, woke up J-Law. Obviously, when she finds out she’s pretty mad but she ends up forgiving him and (straight) love conquers all, it even fixes a hole in the spaceship caused by a tiny asteroid.

And it’s funny isn’t it that the scripts of gay men’s stories don’t always end quite so happily as those of straight lovers. Now, I know I’m comparing an Off-West End show with a Hollywood blockbuster, it’s hardly like with like, but I’m concerned that so many of the shows I see about gay men are bittersweet or sometimes just bitter. It’s like each time we have to go through all the homophobia, shame, prejudice and self-loathing before we can get to asking what might happen next. Whereas there are so many scripts for straight folk that they can do as they please and often get happy endings to boot. Passengers ends in engagement after all (which, I appreciate, doesn’t necessarily guarantee happiness) whereas F*cking Men ends with a young sex worker being given extra pay with which he might just be able to afford the mortgage on a flat with a kitchen – but, unlike the hole in the ship, the shame, stigma and self-loathing haven’t gone away. So, dear LGBTQIA+ allies, it’s another call for help – please help us queer folk get happier endings (and not just of the orgasm variety), please help edit the societal scripts that force us into hiding and get us hurt, and please listen to and share our stories. Next year I want to see two lesbians stuck in outer space, or two trans men, or two intersex folk, and I don’t want that plea to sound like a joke because I’m not being funny. And if you’re not going to write the script then I will and in the meantime I’ll carry on enjoying F*cking Men – seriously, it’s great – get your tickets here. Trailer below most definitely NSFW.

This House: Comedy, Tragedy or Farce?

It’s the all-singing, all-dancing play about British politics in 1974 (well, there’s a little bit of singing and dancing but not much). The Labour government can barely keep it together and the Tories are about to turn to that infamous Iron Lady. Behind the scenes at Westminster the Whips are doing their best to keep their parties in shape and to keep their MPs voting for the right side. It’s harder than it sounds given that some MPs think it more important to fake their own deaths, to actually die, to stand by their principles and/to to defect to the other side. What ensues is simultaneously funny, tragic and farcical as history plays itself out and the Labour Party, the last bastion of the working classes, crumbles from within and without. It’s also far too close to home what with faffing over an EU referendum, Scottish devolution and austerity. I laughed but I also cried. Now, I could go on to write a review of the play but I basically wouldn’t be saying anything the guardian hasn’t already said, it really is great.

Instead, I want to briefly reference an interview with the writer of the play, James Graham. He says that “theatre is a democratic space. You still have to bring people together collectively into a room, you lock the doors, you turn the lights down and you thrash it out live, there and then.” I think this is a wonderfully idealistic view of what theatre can do but I think the irony is that if the theatre is a democratic space it’s got more in common with the sort of farcical democracy we witness in This House rather than any ideal version where we actually have equality. Firstly, you have to pay to get into the theatre, which immediately prioritises the space for the rich. Much like Britain with its private education, increasingly private healthcare and astronomical public transport fares. Not to mention the wealthy politicians who can afford houses and flats in London making it much easier to access the Houses of Parliament. The poor barely scrape by and settle for limited view seating if they’re lucky enough to get in. And, yes, our democracy is like being locked in a room as any vain attempt to escape – say by voting for the Lib Dems or Greens – is met by the Yale lock of the two-party system. And just like at the theatre we are forced to silently watch as those on stage, the politicians, play their own games at the expense of the nation. We’re the ones who get thrashed. Meanwhile, the script is off-limits to the audience apart from once in every five years when we’re tricked into believing we can edit it. And our rounds of applause are reserved for two specific moments, the interval and the end – not much wiggle room there.

I think Graham has a laudable view of the theatre as a genuine tool for change-making within society. But, in our time of relentless consumerism, I fear that theatre is gobbled up as greedily as television and cinema. We’re often going in to escape, not to deeply engage with our inner values, and will come out with much the same view of the world with which we went in. However, I do believe theatre can contribute to culture change but as the phrase suggests it is going to take more than one very good play to change the culture. It’s going to take lots of plays asides many other forms of cultural interaction. As Graham says “we should be getting together like we used to and talking about things.” I couldn’t agree more but I’m not sure that is necessarily going to happen in the imposed silence of a theatre’s auditorium.

Matilda The Musical And Why We’re Never Growing Up

I was very lucky to be able to watch Matilda The Musical the other day. Not only did it get me in the festive mood but I also thought it was a brilliant production. Lots of dedicated kids and adults singing their hearts out and weaving a fantastic and rather timeless story. It’s based on the Roald Dahl book, which was made into an ace movie, and now it’s on in the West End. A few spoilers on the way but I am guessing you probably already know the story: Matilda, a young girl, is bullied by her horrible parents who try and stifle her blossoming genius by threatening to ban reading. Then off to school where she is bullied by the awful (but brilliant) headmistress Miss Trunchbull who has a habit of putting naughty children in Chokey – a small and spiky cage (yup, Roald Dahl was dark). However, Matilda meets Miss Honey, a passionate teacher who is very shy and timid, and very scared of Miss Trunchbull. Miss Honey spots Matilda’s genius and tries to help foster it as any good teacher should. The rest involves giant chocolate cakes, telekinesis and floating chalk. Like many stories about children this one is about growing up and there’s a great song that is all about doing just that (see video below, starts around 42 seconds in) but there’s one bit in particular that is just spot on.

The woman in the pink cardigan is Miss Honey and it’s funny that an adult should be singing about growing up. Her words are these: “When I grow up, I will be brave enough to fight the creatures that you have to fight beneath the bed each night to be a grown up.” And it takes a super-genius, telekinetic girl with an immense capacity for bravery to help Miss Honey grow up and fight the creatures that have been plaguing her often lonely and frightened life. Yet, it’s us adults who have a habit of telling children to just grow up whilst simultaneously telling them that things will be better once they have grown up. But I reckon us adults have an awful lot of growing up to do as well and really we’re using ‘adulthood’ as a facade to exercise undue authority. Yes, adults can be frightened, lonely, scared, mean and nasty too but until we can be honest about our vulnerability we’ll keep on missing those chances to grow up, chances that come from all directions, including (and maybe espeically) from those younger than us. Only then can the world we promise our children really come true.

Matilda also has another great point to make, which is that to make a difference you don’t have to do huge things, the little things you’re capable of can also make a huge difference. Whether it’s offering a helping hand or a listening ear or even just a smile, the little things do add up and they do have an impact. Matilda is also big on challenging authority and fighting injustice, and thanks to her ‘little’ actions, which are huge for others, so much change happens. So yes, 2016 has been quite a year and 2017 has an awful lot of work to do but I reckon it’ll be a much better year if, like Matilda, we do the little things we can and, together, help each other grow up.

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).

The Chemsex Monologues

Chemsex kinda does what it says on the tin, mixes chemicals and sex. The drugs used can include mephedrone, crystal meth, cocaine and ketamine. Naturally, a whole load of stereotypes get flung at the people and groups who engage in these activities which is why The Chemsex Monologues are so important because they reveal the all too human side behind the prejudiced slurs and sensationalised stories. But before you read my review go book your tickets, it’s on tonight until Saturday at 9.45pm at the King’s Head Theatre in London.

Directed by Luke Davies, written by Patrick Cash and designed by Richard Desmond this was an intense hour-and-a-bit. Through a series of monologues we were introduced to various characters: the narrator, played by Richard Watkins, who falls for that hot boy on the scene with the great abs and the endless energy. Then Denholm Spurr brings that boy to life as Nameless, who gets to live his dream and meet a porn star. Meanwhile, Charly Flyte plays Cath, the ever faithful fag hag who’s getting a little fed up of her so-called fag. And Daniel, the wonderfully upbeat sexual health worker who loves handing out condoms and lube at saunas and brings red wine to a chemsex party rather than chems. All the cast were fantastic, they found the nuances of character and the expressive range to ensure each monologue was delivered as the multi-layered story it was written as. It wasn’t just someone stood up and talking for fifteen minutes instead we were drawn into worlds of sweaty bodies, M&S ready meals and chemically fuelled orgies. That all the monologues wove together to tell a larger, interlinked story and showed the same characters from different angles proved very satisfying but I shan’t spoil anything (but what I will say is that I’m very glad how things turned out with Swallows).

What also worked so well in this production as in Queers (also produced by Dragonflies Theatre), was that thread of emotion that meant the stories told were more than just anecdotes but had real heart. That Cath was so much more than a fag hag but also a loyal friend, a hardworking single mum and an amazing source of positivity. That Nameless was more than the boy in short shorts (and nothing else) but had so much love to give and poetry to share. That both the narrator and Daniel could see the cracks in the facade of this seemingly glamorous world and still be there to offer a hand. I’d also like to add that I sincerely hope Matthew Hodson is as nice in person as the characters he plays are – Daniel was a legend as was the character Hodson played in Queers (no pressure Matthew). However, the niceness of these characters just exacerbates the tragedy that runs throughout the play. There’s a moment when Daniel’s wondering to himself why so many people do mix chems and sex. He thinks back to a GCSE classics class and remembers that the word ecstasy comes from the Greek extasis: a displacement or removal from the proper place. “Why do so many gay men want to be outside themselves?” he wonders and I thought that was a very good question. Is it just for fun or is it that this so-called real world can be so endlessly hostile and unwelcoming, so shaming of minorities yet so quick to tokenise and ridicule them whilst remaining indifferent to their suffering. If this is one of the messages woven into The Chemsex Monologues then it’s a wake up call for so many of us to stop being so indifferent and unfriendly because people like Nameless, Daniel, Cath and whatever-the-narrator’s-actually-called are priceless and should be made to feel at home. Anyways, enough of that, go book your ticket.

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Denholm Spurr as Nameless in The Chemsex Monologues

 

Queers On Sunset Boulevard

I’ve been to the theatre twice in the last few days – once to the King’s Head in London to see Queers, six monologues about LGBT life, and also to the Oxford Playhouse to see Sunset Boulevard, a perhaps better known show all about an ageing film star who goes off the rails. Both were brilliant productions but for completely different reasons.

With Queers, young playwright Pat Cash has created six memorable LGBT characters who offer us brief and poignant glimpses into their lives. With Larry the Laydeez’ Lothario we witness how lad culture can suppress people’s sexualities out of fear and prejudice. In Queen Marsha F Star Star King Fabulous of Dalston we witness the fight for trans people to exist when she’s very bluntly told that she is not a woman. Each monologue was around ten minutes yet they all managed to pack a tear-jerking emotional punch. The most moving for me was the story of Old Tom who is sat at a gay bar in Soho recounting his younger days of activism to a bored, young bartender. Matthew Hodson’s portrayal of Tom is poetic and understated and he also puts on a great voice for the barman. Tom’s life is a lonely one as so many of his friends have died but as his story concludes the bartender, no longer checking his phone, puts his hand on Tom’s and calls him a friend. This simple idea that loneliness does not have to last forever is extremely touching. At £12 Queers is a bargain, on until 22nd November.

Queers

Now over to Sunset Boulevard – an exciting and exceptionally professional production from the self-professed “amateur” Oxford Operatic Society. A giant cast made for hectic and well-choreographed chorus moments and two strong leads meant the story of Norma and Joe played out with suitably dramatic highs and lows – Norma is a fascinating character as her addiction to her faded fame and external validation renders her a vulnerable and exceptionally fragile person whilst Joe’s desire to succeed often turns him into a selfish bully who, for some reason, women keep falling for. The show captures the fickle nature of showbiz and cast rivalries very astutely which couldn’t help but make me question the nature of the relationships of the actual cast members! Add to this a great spiral staircase, Norma’s epic wardrobe and a full-sized orchestra blasting out their melodies from the pit and you’re in for a good time. Two shows left today, go, go, go!

Sunset Boulevard

Yet as I watched Sunset Boulevard something jarred – something about the joke about not taking black friends to restaurants (apparently that’s a big no-no in 1950s screenplays) sung by a predominantly white cast, something about the token camp character (who we were encouraged to assume was homosexual) who was played for laughs, something also about the desperately stereotypical roles the leads took – past-it, fifty year old woman who goes mad and driven, sometimes selfish, young guy who ultimately gets shot in the back. I know that musicals don’t have to be informed by feminism or be diverse but I think it’s fun when they are. One could certainly interpret Sunset Boulevard through a feminist-Marxist lens and appreciate that the highly competitive and capitalistic world of film-making basically treats people very badly (apart from maybe the directors and producers) and makes us all into monsters but to do this one might also have to clutch at a few straws. It’s also somewhat of a bitter pill that whilst older, female actors are still being discriminated against in the various acting industries one of the major lead roles for an older woman in a musical is that of a faded, mad ex-actor!

This is where Queers has the edge because it’s unapologetically diverse and not necessarily because it’s trying to make a point about diversity but simply because it couldn’t but be. To meet the characters of Queers is to meet a brilliant panoply of different people whilst treading the boards of Sunset Boulevard seems to be a somewhat white and stereotyped experience. Normalising diversity in films, theatre, TV and musicals isn’t just a question of casting diverse people it also means writing inherently diverse scripts. So, I reckon that Sunset Boulevard (whilst a brilliant production) is a bit like Norma Desmond, stuck in the past, whilst Queers is ushering in a very different sort of sunrise.