Written by Mark Gatiss and seven other authors, ‘Queers’ is a series of eight monologues exploring British gay history. Commissioned to mark the 50-year anniversary of the 1967 Sexual Offences Act, which decriminalised homosexual acts in private between two men over the age of twenty-one, they were first shown on the BBC and performed on stage at The Old Vic in 2017.
Split across two performances, Birmingham’s Crescent Theatre are reviving all eight monologues. Together, they offer a ‘state-of-the-nation’ insight into a century of social and political change and whilst the series mostly reflects the gay male experience, there are two monologues which offer female perspectives. The four monologues in ‘Set A’ are all beautifully performed, combining the personal and the political in stories which are both funny and tragic.
The first monologue – ‘The Man on the Platform’ – is set in 1917. Written by Mark Gatiss and directed by Alex Arksen, the speaker is a soldier who has returned from serving in the trenches of the first world war. He lives in a world in which homosexual love dare not speak its name. Tom Lowde’s performance as Perce is tender and poignant although what dominates, as it should, is a palpable sadness. Fifty years away from decriminalisation, we are reminded of the repression and fear which dominated the lives of gay men at this time. This is most poetic in a beautifully delivered description of Oscar Wilde weeping as he waits in chains on a train station platform.
Set twelve years later in 1929, the second monologue – ‘The Perfect Gentleman’ – explores gender and queerness at a time when our contemporary vocabulary to describe identity did not exist. “I am not what I seem. I am not a man,” states Bobby in the opening lines. Her declaration that she “does not wish to be a man” speaks to very modern notions of gender fluidity. Katie Goldhawk combines swagger with vulnerability in an engaging performance of great physicality. Strutting in top hot, white-tie and tails and sporting a cane she embodies a very particular version of masculinity: a gentleman who is not apologetic about taking up space in the world. The complexities of navigating a love affair with a woman, who may or may not be aware that Bobby is not all that ‘he’ seems to be, is handled with sensitivity.
The third monologue – ‘Safest Spot in Town’ by Keith Jarrett – shifts focus onto the black gay male experience. Directed by Maura Judges, it is set in London in 1941 when the capital was the target of repeated bombing raids. Khari Moore gives a winning performance full of charm and confidence as the dandy-ish Frederick, a gay man struggling to find a place for himself after emigrating from West India. Although still criminalised, his story highlights a growing gay subculture in London and there is a freer indulgence in desires than is evident in the earlier monologues. Dark humour is brilliantly handled (“I saw poor white people for the first time”) in a natural and relaxed performance.
The final monologue of the night, also directed by Maura Judges, is the most intimate. ‘Missing Alice’ by Jon Bradfield fast forwards sixteen years to 1957 to offer the second female perspective of the series. Alice’s discovery of her husband’s homosexuality and her reaction to it is related by Fi Cotton in a deeply affecting, softly spoken and natural style. Her gentle but hilarious performance – an anecdote about cheese sauce earns the biggest laugh of the night - is full of bathos. Set in the same year as the publication of the Wolfenden Report, which concluded that the criminalisation of homosexuality was an impingement on civil liberty, Alice’s story is a moving insight into the impact of increasing liberalisation on a marriage.
“Homosexuality remains illegal in seventy-four countries” wrote Mark Gatiss in 2017 when ‘Queers’ was first performed. The sweep of history is towards greater tolerance and acceptance – in 2023 this number has thankfully reduced to sixty-four countries – but this remains deeply shocking and as Gatiss also observed “hard-won victories can be undone.” The staging of these brilliantly written and beautifully performed monologues at the Crescent Theatre is a small part of the continuing fight for equality. I look forward to seeing Set B. Highly recommended.
Queers – ‘Set B’
Second set of monologues bring stories of gay life up to marriage equality and are delivered to the same professional standard as ‘Set A’.
Set in the same year as the decriminalisation of consensual sex between adult men (1967) the first monologue, written by Matthew Baldwin and directed by Kevin Middleton, is titled ‘I Miss the War’ and is told by Jack, a gay man in his 60s. Graeme Braidwood is perfect in the role – a former soldier turned tailor who proudly claims the title ‘Duchess of Duke Street’. Snippets of Polari, a slang language used by gay men to communicate in secret, are delivered with knowing ‘fantabuloza’ campness but what resonates is uncertainty about the future in a changing political and social landscape. “Trust me, homosexuals will be no better off than they are now…we will be forced to swallow the great lie that romance happens only once and that love is forever.” Bitterness and nostalgia are combined in a moving performance which complicates the idea that decriminalisation was welcomed by all gay men.
Two decades later in 1987, Phil sits in the same bar in beanie hat and Doc Martens. An ‘eighties gay’ he is an actor in his late twenties, defined both professionally and personally by the AIDS crisis and persistently typecast as a dying victim. Written by Brian Fillis and also directed by Kevin Middleton, ‘More Anger’ is a powerful monologue about the anti-gay sentiment which the ‘gay plague’ provoked. Mark Shaun Walsh strikes the right balance between righteous anger and charming wit in a convincing performance. A burgeoning relationship with a man he meets cruising is tender and we care when events take a dark turn. Fury and pain unite in a final outburst which is a powerful reminder of the impact of AIDS on the gay community and the failure of the government to act.
‘A Grand Day Out’, written by Michael Dennis and directed by Mark Shaun Walsh, takes us to the night in 1994 when the House of Commons vote on lowering the homosexual age of consent was taking place. Francis Quinn’s performance as Andrew, a wide-eyed seventeen-year-old discovering himself (and falafels), is a masterclass in understated comic timing. His disbelief when the government vote to reduce the age of consent to eighteen is disarming – “It’s almost worse than if they’d kept it twenty-one. There’d be some – honesty in that….we’ll make you slightly more equal.” Despite the scrapping of Section 28 in 1988, this was a time when the government continued to refuse equality for homosexual relationships. The irony that joining the protest widens Andrew’s sexual experience is not lost on him, or us, but his fear of being seen by his parents on the TV news is a sobering reminder of the family rejection faced by many gay men.
The concluding monologue of the series, written by Gareth McLean and directed by Alex Arksen, is set two years after the legalisation of gay marriage. It is 2016 and in ‘Something Borrowed’ Steve is preparing for his wedding day, reflecting on the enormous social, political and personal changes which have brought him close to a day on which he can marry another man. Peter Neenan’s performance is gentle, sincere and moving and it is a fitting tribute to the decades of struggle that we conclude with unashamed romance, albeit tempered with realism. “I know we don’t get happily-ever-afters…I’m a hopeless romantic, not a total fucking idiot.” A nod to the first monologue brought me to tears. An uplifting, poetic and beautifully delivered conclusion to an important series of monologues which I hope will continue to be performed for many years to come.
The monologues performed were:
Set A: 1917 - 1957
The Man on the Platform by Mark Gatiss (1917)
The Perfect Gentleman by Jackie Clune (1929)
Safest Spot in Town by Keith Jarrett (1941)
Missing Alice by Jon Bradfield (1957)
Set B: 1967 - 2016
I Miss the War by Matthew Baldwin (1967)
More Anger by Brian Fillis (1987)
A Grand Day Out by Michael Dennis (1994)
Something Borrowed by Gareth McClean (2016)