Gay and Lesbian Humanist

Autumn 1999

The Edinburgh Fringe and Book Festivals

reviewed by Tony Challis

Adrift in a whirl of culture! To begin with one of the best, Claire Dowie’s monologue Adult Child, Dead Child is often performed and popular, but the idea of dividing it between fifteen teenagers is original. James Yarker has directed the piece for Stage 2, a Birmingham youth theatre. The performers come on stage chaotically, and then sit as though for a school photo, in three rows. The story of an unloved child, twisted by the world and almost ending disastrously, is then told. The tale has humour, and the voices of the central girl, her family and others move amongst the young cast with an almost musical flow and modulation. If this company come to your area, go see.

Stage 2 were at the Bedlam Theatre at lunchtime. I returned to the same venue in the evening for Corpus Christi. To watch an adult company – you know, older, more experienced, more perceptive and professional people. Oh dear! The work began with the baptism – one character baptising each of the actors – real name, “I acknowledge your divinity as a man”, character name, downstage, “Hi, this is me, and this is what I feel about my character” (a drama school exercise?). There are thirteen characters. All of them? Yes. Twenty minutes later.

You might think that that would sort out any confusion. But I found it difficult to know when we were meant to be in Corpus Christi, USA, circa 1970, and when in ancient Palestine.

This Christ was an unsporting wimp who, when asked by Judas if he was gay, replied “I like people” before plunging down Judas’s throat. We all know the type. This Jesus has little message (no beatitudes, etc.) but revives a cute young Lazarus, conducts a gay wedding, strikes in anger a rabbi who objects, and betrays Judas’s love with another dishy young disciple, thus prompting further betrayal. No wonder mainstream Christians raised eyebrows. This was just an adolescent American gay fantasy. Sad. I know that author Terence McNally and director Stephen Henry are capable of much better than this.

In search of inspiration, I went to see My Night with Reg at 10.30pm. A long and dutiful day. This play ran for a couple of years in the West End, though I fail to see why, apart from the novelty value of seeing men being so emotional together on stage. It begins with much brio, and with a group of sparkly, engaging characters on stage. After that, it’s all funerals and flattening. I wouldn’t want to criticise the valiant efforts of the cast from Wisepart Productions, directed by Susannah Pack. They were a very young cast, coping well with playing much older men. There were very touching moments, but “The play’s the thing”, and that is what fails here.

Riffs and Credos (Frantic Redhead Productions) – about a priest’s “blasphemous” last two hours, dying of AIDS – was all playful fantasy, and no-one seemed the least unwell, or even distraught. This same company gave us the excellent Moscow last year. How did they manage to come up with this emotionally infantile mish mash this time round?

Lyrebird: Tales of Helpmann is a show which won a Fringe First in The Scotsman. It is an excellent portrayal of the life and experiences of Robert Helpmann, an outstanding gay Australian, who did a great deal to develop ballet in Britain as well as down under. This is produced by Christine Dunstan and stars Tyler Coppin, who has a long history of stage success and who has directed for the Dance Camp show at the Sydney gay and lesbian Mardi Gras Festival. He’s the sort of actor who can be alone on stage yet make you believe that half a dozen people are up there. Lyrebird was a vivid and memorable experience.

Mark Northfield is a very effective and versatile songwriter and keyboard player, and has written clever songs whose intelligence might limit commercial success. Let’s hope not! He gave a successful performance at the BiCon (Bisexual Conference) in Edinburgh very recently. I saw him on his first night in Edinburgh, performing before a small audience. As Channel 4 were there filming and talking to most of us, maybe he’ll get his big break. He received more publicity in Princes Street gardens the next day, so we should be hearing more of him.

The show Boyband, written by Peter Morris and performed by a young cast from the Oxford Stage Company, was disturbing as a picture of rent boys being transformed into pop stars and continuing to be exploited. It had some very good lines, but perhaps tried to take on too many themes for a short play. However, this is one where I would like to see the script, and I was tempted by the idea of the CD.

The Natural Theatre Company, which hails from Bath, graced week three of the Fringe with One Lump or Two – a hilarious meeting with Lady Margaret and her nephew Penkivil.

This thoroughly professional company invited their audience to await the arrival of Lady Margaret’s limousine outside the Balmoral Hotel before going inside for a musical tea party complete with cucumber sandwiches. A very assured and effective show.

However, overall, the Book Festival offered more satisfaction. There was little sign of gay writers this year, but Annie Proulx spoke. She published her first novel at age 56 and now at 64 is one of America’s foremost writers. Her recent collection Close Range includes the story “Brokeback Mountain”. This is the best American gay short story I’ve read – and it’s written by a straight woman. It concerns two women who meet shepherding in Wyoming in the ’60s and are unable to get out of each other’s lives thereafter, despite the most inhospitable circumstances. Read this story! It will make you feel more alive, like all the best tragedy, and will help you see how it is for some men. It’s much better than the usual Mills and Balls of gay lit. The Corpus Christi people’s attempt to attach the legacy of the death of Matthew Shepard in Wyoming last year to their production insults his memory; this story without ever using his name effectively honours his memory.

Lemn Sissay and Jackie Kay gave an excellent poetry reading in the Book Festival – an event of humour, ideas and pzazz, from two dynamic black British performers. Jackie Kay has written a novel, Trumpet, about a “male” jazz trumpeter who marries, adopts a child and only after death is revealed to be a woman. One for my list.

Earlier the same evening, Ludovic Kennedy was reading from his new book, which tells us all why we should be humanists. I couldn’t get a ticket for this for love or money, but could hear the applause from a marquee elsewhere on the site.

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