Friday 28 July 2017

Theatre review: Queers Part 1

It hasn't been marked quite as ubiquitously on stage as the centenary of the First World War, the 4th centenary of Shakespeare's death or even the King James Bible were, but theatres are now starting to step up the events commemorating the 50th anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality. The Old Vic has paired up with the BBC, whose Queer Britain season includes the upcoming Queers on BBC4, eight monologues curated by Mark Gatiss giving snapshots of gay life before and after decriminalisation, to give each one of the short plays a one-off live performance. About half of the performers from the TV version have been able to reprise their roles, with the rest recast, and Gatiss shares directing duties with Joe Murphy on Part 1 as well as writing the first of the four stories in this first collection.

And this quartet spans a whole century, starting in 1917 with Jack Derges as a soldier not long returned from the front, and amused to see a man eye him up in a pub. It's called The Man on the Platform, a reference to a childhood encounter with a notorious figure, and his parents' reaction that coloured the way he would view his own sexuality as he grew up. But it could also refer to one of the most bittersweet moments of his life as well. The only female writer in the pack is Jackie Clune, whose 1929-set The Perfect Gentleman sees maid Ellen (Gemma Whelan) save her master's old clothes from being thrown away, dressing in them as a man and going out to meet women in her new guise. Whether she finds love or not is to be determined, but she does find a lot of married women whose sexual frustrations she proves adept at helping resolve.

Based at least on the first half of the series, these monologues are more positive than angry, and although there's sad and touching moments there's a lot of laughs too; the most coming from Ian Gelder as a tailor the day after decriminalisation in Matthew Baldwin's I Miss the War. This time the World War he's remembering is the second one, and the huge leap forward for homosexuals is, for him, tempered by a sadness at the underworld of Polari and illicit thrills that will be lost as a result. Finally Gareth McLean takes us all the way up to the present and equal marriage in Something Borrowed, with Mark Bonnar as Stephen, who's rehearsing his wedding speech. They're an enjoyable collection of monologues, tinged with a bit of sadness but not bleak as some "celebrations" of gay life can sometimes become, and there's always an added excitement to being at a one-off event like this. I'm sure I'll enjoy these again in their TV incarnation, although it'll be odd to see Derges replaced with Ben Whishaw, and Bonnar with Alan Cumming.

Queers by Mark Gatiss, Jackie Clune, Matthew Baldwin and Gareth McLean will run on BBC4 from the 31st of July to the 3rd of August.

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