We were kindly invited by The Criterion, Earlsdon to review their latest production Queers, a collection of eight monologues capturing 100 years of the LGBTQ+ experience, collated by Mark Gatiss. We watched their digital performance on Sunday 4th October, at the end of their sold-out, in-person run. Catch our thoughts below…
There’s no getting away from it: watching a play on Youtube is a strange thing. Logging on to Youtube to watch ‘Queers.’, I found myself wondering what I could do to try and bring the authentic theatre experience to my bedroom. Pop to the shop and insist on paying three times the usual price for a bag of Revels perhaps? Or fashion a Very Tall Man out of pillows and place it in front of me to slightly obscure my view of the screen?
In the end, however, it turned out I needn’t have worried. Credit to Criterion Theatre, once it began, I soon forgot where I was, and begun to enjoy the production for what it was. Considering the actors were playing to a virtually empty theatre, the atmosphere and intensity was impressive. While there were certainly some moments which missed a live audience – slightly stilted silence instead of any laughs or murmurs – I was able to stay engaged as I watched: a true achievement considering the screen fatigue we’ve all been suffering from over the past few months.
Indeed, it occurred to me that in some ways, this production actually rather suited being watched through this medium. The fact you were watching each monologue in a genuine one-to-one environment added to the sense of intensity. Each monologue became a mini confession, to you and you alone, through the screen… like some sort of time travelling chat room.
The monologues themselves worked chronologically, but jumped about through the world of queerness in a marvellously adventurous way – from a queer female cross dresser, to a woman with an in the closet husband, to a man struggling to write a speech to perform at his wedding – all linked together by that Great British institution of the pub. Each began with the actor taking a seat at the bar, drink in hand. As a result, stage directions and use of props were minimal, but this certainly felt like a considered choice rather than through lack of thought or budget (though who could blame them if this was the case – lord knows this isn’t a time when theatres are rolling in surplus cash to spend).
If anything, the relatively bare stage left room to really focus on the actor’s physicality and voice. While some of the accents slipped at times (I did wonder if perhaps some of the actors could have kept their own regional accents rather than attempt the Queen’s English drawl… after all, there were queers in the North too!) The out of work actor Phil, reading snippets of the cliched scripts of parts available to him as a gay man was a particular highlight. The piece swung from the comic to the shockingly moving, and – often – a mixture of both (such as Phil’s wish in an 1980s world dominated by the AIDS crisis for “a role that doesn’t require me to lose half a stone and make my face pale”).
Indeed, other than the dates in which they were set – ranging from WW1 to the legalisation of gay marriage in 2014 – there wasn’t anything formulaic about the way the pieces moved. It was a relief to find each piece as strong and full of heart as the one before – in a production so completely split between actors, it would have been very easy for there to have been a ‘weak link’, but I can honestly say this was not the case. I closed my laptop feeling emotional and buoyed up – happy to have finally seen some proper theatre after so long… and to not have to get a two hour long train journey home at the end of it. Bravo.
Why a pub? With 100 years of queer history to delve into, eight actors to take the stage and an abundance of suffering to be recounted, we open on a pub. A table and a chair. A glass of beer. The production begins with Perce. It’s 1917. He’s chatting to us on what feels remarkably like a typical evening down the local. He has a gentle manner, and speaks of the horrors of war the way we might discuss our morning commute. His voice never rises in volume, not while reminiscing about his beloved Captain Leslie, or even when he recounts meeting Oscar Wilde in prison chains on a train platform.
A pub is the human equivalent of a watering hole. It’s a place of rest open to the public, designed in every way to make you feel at home. This is your space, so settle into your chair and grab a pint and a packet of crisps. We’ve got a lot of history to cover. This is the precedent set by Mark Gatiss for each monologue we are about to hear. Despite the continual reminder that the characters are ostracised from public society for their sexual identities, the production immediately finds common ground for its audience and speakers.
Whilst the monologues are not a comprehensive history, the links between them build a picture of an evolving queer community. Act 1 and Act 2 are separated by the 1967 decriminalisation of homosexuality. The characters in Act 1 are ‘othered’ by society: they exist in the darkness of anonymity, as Jack puts it in ‘I Miss The War.’ Being othered brings them together. They feel excitement when they spot “a man like me.” A stolen glance or a kiss on the cheek holds huge power because their queerness is forbidden. In ‘The Perfect Gentleman’, Bobby is elated when she escapes into society by dressing like a man. I’m sure the thrill of a secret isn’t lost on any of us.
By Act 2, however, times have changed. The contrast is greatest, as you might expect, in the final monologue by Steve, set in 2016 just after the UK legalised gay marriage. His wedding-speech style monologue returns to the central idea of a collective queerness. Steve questions himself when he refers to the queer community as “my people.” He’s annoyed at his own want for marriage, a symbol of a society that we’ve just watched discriminate against queer people for the past 100 years. To be gay is framed as inherently political, and as such is no longer woven with the same quiet intrigue as Act 1. Being othered is no longer socially acceptable. The fight has been opened up, and with it boils over decades of resentment at being silenced.
It might appear there has been something lost here. The early monologues express an intense appreciation for the little moments of visibility and queer fulfilment – we can practically see Perce’s heart fluttering as he describes Captain Leslie’s features in whimsical detail. This is replaced in Act 2 by frustration at the slow rate of legislative change and public attitudes. Love isn’t once mentioned in the 5th, 6th or 7th monologues. Instead, we’re met with anger at forces outside of their control. But if we look closer, I think Queers shows us a new version of community that’s imbedded in the characters’ queerness.
The irony of Steve’s musings on marriage and his “people,” are lost on him, but not the audience. We listen as his monologue connects the motifs running throughout the performance: “You’ve got to have an Oscar Wilde quote at a gay wedding.” There’s a homage paid in this statement to those who lived through the suffering. Love was never lost, but perhaps a queer identity has come to mean more. It carries all those before it and those who will follow. In the moment that Steve focuses purely on his fiancé, Adam, we see the impact of 100 years of progress. The frustration is still there, but there’s a wedding cake on the table and a wedding speech to be made. Who would we be to stand in their way?
Queers being performed at the Criterion is the perfect example of the progress that Mark Gatiss’ collection of monologues tries to encapsulate. A local theatre (with a predominantly white, middle-class audience) performing a collection of LGBTQ+ monologues to a run of sold out (albeit socially distanced) audiences, with over 100 people purchasing tickets to watch the show online – and the audiences loved it. We watched the online version, and despite being completely computer-ed out lately, the team behind Queers did a great job at making a distanced and digital show feel like you were really just sitting second row.
Queers stands you at the end of 100 years of progress, looking back along a stretched-out timeline of LGBTQ+ history and half-expecting to be met with only difference. Instead, we see ourselves. Instead, we laugh and gasp at stories from the 1910’s, 20’s and 40’s as if our friend were telling us over a pint last Sunday. There’s something about the collection’s pub setting that grounds the piece – I’d go for a pint with these characters. A non-binary lesbian in 1929 who, helplessly in love, tries to trick their lady in to thinking the candlestick in their trousers is, in fact, a penis? Yes please – share every detail with me over a pint of Aspall’s. A gay actor in 1987 who is (rightly) frustrated at being repeatedly cast as gay stereotypes, and killed off within the first 15 minutes of every show? Give me half an hour with him and a worn-out pub stool and we could really put this industry to rights.
Most of all, I believed these characters. Leigh Bartlam, playing Frederick, tugs on our heartstrings as he lights up when talking about his lover. Georgia Kelly – Bobby – had me stifling hysterical laughter at her blunders, before realising I was sat in my living room and could chuckle along happily. Lewis Goode sucks us in to the exciting life of Frederick – muse to many – before sobering us up masterfully as he shares his reality. Anne-Marie Green plays Alice warmly; we feel like we’ve made a deep connection with a stranger who reminds us that other people have lives as complex as our own. We gasp as Mark Jeffries, playing Jack, shares scandalous stories from a time before homosexuality was legalised. Ted McGowan candidly takes us back to what it meant to be a gay man in the 80s with ease, playing Phil as both cheeky and earnest. Paul Forey, playing Andrew, is loveably naïve and childlike as he reflects on protests around the age of consent laws. Finally, we meet Steve – played by Gareth Cooper – practicing his wedding speech cheerfully, who reminds us that if we don’t see ourselves reflected in the stories we read, we can write our own – which is ‘fucking terrifying, and quite exciting.’
Our motley crew of queer friends through the ages show us that so much and so little has changed for LGBTQ+ people in the UK. However, as performer Mark Jeffries commented in the Q&A: ‘the best part about doing this play is the fact that we can have conversations like this now.’ As much as this show highlights different shades of progress, the fact that over 25 people (cast, creatives and audiences) were able to sit on Zoom and discuss what this show means to them and how through this, they feel represented in their suburban theatre in Coventry, shows an admirable amount of progress for this community. I look forward to seeing what the Criterion does next.