Less is often more. Sorry to start with a cliché but in the case of Tower Theatre’s production of Queers which opened last night it is, at least, highly appropriate. This set of four solo performance pieces is presented with a simple naturalism which allows the stories to speak for themselves and the characters to shine a light on the LGBTQ+ community and their ongoing fight for recognition and equality. The production is being deployed to mark the 50th anniversary of London Pride, an event which seeks to celebrate diversity in all its forms and without which many of the societal shifts which have taken place in the last half century might well not have occurred or, at least, have been further delayed. Not that the pieces themselves look at that particular historical period. Rather they serve as reminder that change has been a much more gradual process and that prior to 1972 there was a long history of repression and prejudice being faced by many within the global community we term humanity.
The first monologue The Man On The Platform transports us back to 1917 as young soldier/medical orderly Perce returns from a spell on the front line of hostilities and gradually reveals to us facets of his personality which he has felt obliged to keep hidden. In particular, he tells us of a fleeting and muted though epiphanic liaison with a fellow soldier. This in turn sparks memories of a childhood close encounter with a gay icon which he now realises was a seminal moment in his own development. Written by Mark Gatiss (who curated the original TV series of Queers) it is an understated and beautifully drawn portrait of a tormented soul who must snatch moments of happiness where he can and is sensitively and stilly played by Simon Christian.
The quartet, which is arranged in a pleasing chronological order, continues with The Perfect Gentleman by Jackie Clune. Neither the adjective nor the noun of the title is strictly accurate as we meet Bobby from late 1920s London subverting the (so called) norms of the era by dressing as a swaggering male alter ego. This has clearly been influenced by music hall performer Vesta Tilley’s turn as Burlington Bertie from Bow, a routine involving cross dressing. Rather more robustly comic than the preceding piece, Rebecca Allan captivates the transgressive nature of her character and has the audience laughing heartily at a lengthy (in more senses than one) anecdote involving the rather unusual deployment of a candle. Peter Westbury’s costume designs generally are a joy to look at, but are especially so here.
Post interval our next encounter is with Fredrick in 1941. Not only is he gay but a black West Indian immigrant and therefore encounters a double whammy of prejudice which reinforces his outsider status. Hopes of becoming a lawyer are soon dashed and he tuns to artistic modelling to pay the rent. The advent of World War 2 ironically provides him with a degree of freedom. He is able to use the Blitz as a cover for nocturnal activities which take in both the East End docks and West End theatreland; the latter has rather a different and surprising meaning in this particular context. Keith Jarret’s Safest Spot In Town lands its punches well and Leon Wander as Fredrick gives a nicely judged performance with moments of spiky humour.
The final piece takes us to forty years after the first and the tale of a housewife in Jon Bradfield’s Missing Alice. Although she is a keen observer of the minutiae of life (i.e., the speck of cheese sauce on a friend’s wrist), Alice enters unknowingly into a so called “lavender marriage” of convenience. This means husband Michael can pursue his liaisons under a cloak of respectability and she gets back some of the societal status she lost by becoming an unmarried mother at just 16. Alice accepts her lot and even conspires to make the system work but there’s an underlying sadness to her biography which reminds us that the repressive milieu also had an indirect knock on effect to many another. Helen McGill delivers a pitch perfect performance which exudes a surface level cheery bonhomie while ensuring that we know of her deep seated pain.
Victor Craven’s direction of all four pieces is nothing short of masterly and he has rightly insisted that his actors concentrate on tell their characters’ stories; however, in reality, there is so much more going on. Stephen Ley’s beautifully realised lighting is both subtle and evocative. Meanwhile Jude Chalk’s spare Victorian pub setting (which totally believably doesn’t change in four decades) has something of the church confessional about it with its pew like bench seating and its arched window. Keep an eye on the one changing feature, the pictures on the wall, which have symbolic significance. Rather more low key than Pride itself tends to be, this spare but essential production is everything good theatre should be – educational, enlightening, emotive and above all entertaining. To achieve some circularity I need to conclude this review with another cliché. Fortunately this is not tricky: Queers is just about as good as it gets.