A Haunted Existence
Originally produced by Jo Kimber
Camden People's Theatre
The 1950s were not a safe time for gay men.
Police had such enormous resources, they would go undercover as human beings, just to charm some poor soul into perhaps a friendly smile that landed them in prison.
One of their victims was the seventeen-year-old Geoffrey Patrick Williamson, who made the mistake of chatting to a stranger on his train journey to Bristol in 1953.
He may have thought the conversation harmless, but the stranger was a policeman and it resulted in him being arrested at Taunton. During his interrogation, the police extracted the names of seventeen other men, fifteen of whom were charged and nine sent to prison for up to six years.
These events are a thread running through Tom Marshman’s gentle performance of A Haunted Existence. Several times, he quotes the brave words Geoffrey spoke to police: “you may find these things morally wrong, I don’t.”
But the history, the full story of Geoffrey, is not recorded. We get only glimpses of where he lived, his eventual emigration with a male partner to Australia and his death in 1994.
Much of the show is instead concerned with context. There is a montage of dance, recorded period music played manually on three record players and snippets of detail from a time of terrible persecution.
There is a brief account of aversion therapy, in which the supposedly ill homosexual would be injected with a chemical that made him vomit as he was shown images of men. Another version would subject him to electric shocks.
All of which helped create a climate of fear. Tom Marshman lip-syncs the cruel words of a trial judge insisting society had to promote that fear. It led to one of those looking to reform the law claiming that homosexuals were forced to live a haunted existence.
The show is always engaging, compassionate and surprisingly upbeat. We hear about the determination of gay men to continue relationships and the resistance involved in the secret gay language of Polari.
By the time the government got round to considering reforms in 1954, over a thousand men were crammed into prison for homosexual acts. It would be another thirteen years before homosexual acts in private for those over the age of 21 were decriminalised in England and Wales.
No apology has been made to the men whose lives were damaged or destroyed by persecution and prison. No compensation has ever been paid. It is still not always safe to be openly gay in the UK.
Reviewer: Keith Mckenna