Queer as Fringe
Vertigo Theatre Productions, Dream Avenue Productions and Pink Triangle Theatre
Three Minute Theatre, Afflecks, Manchester
This mini festival of gay theatre was the clever idea of the writer and director Lloyd Eyre Morgan whose recent plays Dream On and Celluloid have been so very well received in Manchester. Joining his Dream Avenue Productions on this occasion are Vertigo Productions and Pink Triangle Theatre Company. During the evening they each showcase two short plays with roughly 15 minutes run times.
Themes include homophobia, gay love at differing times in the past century, and the corrosive values of the gay commercial scene. There is a good balance of comedy and drama and some very powerful emotions are expressed over the course of the two hours. These include strong violence and sexual depictions.
In the opening piece, Heart Shaped Cravings written and directed by Lloyd Eyre Morgan, two teenage boys navigate first love against the backdrop of a boys boarding school in 1920. While the setting could in fact have been many decades later as homophobic attitudes in education took a long while to shift, the tensions in the relationship are well shown. Bradley Cross beautifully plays Louis who is far more at ease with his emerging sexuality. This contrasts well with a suitably stressed Haydn Holden who, as Rory, is torn between his strong feelings of same-sex attraction and his desire to fulfil the straight military life his father wants for him. Ben Rigby as the Headmaster Mr Taylor is appropriately sinister. His initial ingratiating turns to disgust and savage sexual violence when he discovers the boys' relationship.
Next comes Show One. This is the highly accomplished Pink Triangle Theatre's exploration of homophobia. It is cut down from its usual run time but still packs a powerful and humorous punch as it explores "limpus homophobus". The talented quartet Paul J Burgess, Jason D Bromely, Stuart Crowther and Dan Burns co-devised the performance and play a variety of characters. Some of the scenes included are a young lad coming out to his homophobic father and getting thrown out of the home as well as a mock version of Family Fortunes where the contestants had to guess at the homophobic comments of the public. There is much comic invention and ensemble work to which the audience hugely responded. The show ends with an emotional roll call of some victims of the oppression of gays.
The final drama in part one is Clooless, written and directed by Adele Stanhope. This is set in the toilets of a bar on Canal St in Manchester's gay village. We experience the differing characters, gay and straight, through the jaundiced eyes of the attendant who has largely seen and bitched about it all so many times before. It is a very funny piece as the various gay men, straight women and lesbians have no self-awareness at all. Relationships are made and fall apart at the seams in front of him and ourselves. As the attendant pithily puts it, when you're drunk the mask slips and it's not pretty. Stand outs in a strong cast are Lee Eakins as the attendant and Adele Stanhope as respectively a straight woman on the lash and a duplicitous lesbian.
The 15-minute interval became a half hour break due to the logistical problems resulting from there only being one lavatory on the premises. This is available for the audiences as well as the performers. The venue is fast becoming appropriately regarded as a haven for interesting and stimulating drama you are unlikely to see elsewhere in the city, so it is something which the managers of the 3M Theatre will do well to address sooner rather than later. Neither this delay nor the late start took anything away from the high quality of the productions, but it is not ideal to have to queue quite so publicly and for so long for the facilities.
The second half begins with one of the most tightly scripted productions of the evening. Numb by Craig Hepworth was inspired by his desire to consider the back story of two characters he had created for another longer piece. The setting is the home of jaded disco bunny James, aka Alan, as he invites his rent boy round to beat him up. This piece dissects with laser-like precision the façades we build to protect ourselves from realising or dealing with uncomfortable truths. James is numb. His lifestyle is perhaps as "numb" as he is. He needs Paul the rent boy to hurt him physically for him to feel anything at all in the midst of his empty life on the gay scene. Both Dale Vicker as James and Richard Allen as Paul give very strong, beautifully passionate performances. There is much truth revealed. This reviewer believed totally in the characters and their predicaments. Paul is looking for connection every bit as much as James is deep down and there is a real tension created as to whether they would or would not get together in the end.
Pink Triangle Theatre's second offering was set in a lift sometime in the future when government control and automation are instilled into every facet of life. The lift breaks down and traps a gay and a straight couple along with a religious bigot. It soon becomes clear that this is part of a state attempt at social control. The characters all face the audience as they struggle to contain their fears at the strange and ultimately disastrous events as they wait to be released. This play is as much an exploration of tolerance and bigotry as a piece of science fiction. Paul J Burgess and Jason D Bromely are joined by Stuart Crowther, Shelley Cooper and Alison Keane.
The final drama of the festival, The Darkside of the Rainbow by Lloyd Eyre Morgan, was set in the aftermath of the famous Stonewall Inn riots in New York in 1969 which kick started the modern era gay rights movement in the USA. A young man has been arrested at the scene of the drag queen revolution. As he is interrogated by a police officer we see in touching flashback how they were in fact connected some years earlier. This intelligent play effectively portrayed what it is like to have to be in the closet when it is dangerous to be open about your sexuality. In a satisfying reversal of roles from their initial performance, Bradley Cross plays Harry the cop, who is tortured with self loathing, and Haydn Holden plays Lawrence, the very out and proud young man who tries to help him come to terms with whom he really is.
The settings and lighting were both minimal but this took nothing away from the power and skill of the writing and acting on the stage.
Festival director Lloyd Eyre Morgan hopes Queer as Fringe will become a regular and expanded part of the Manchester theatre scene. On this outing it certainly deserves to be.
Reviewer: Andrew Edwards