Above the Stag, London – 28 April 2019
Guest reviewer: Archie Whyld
In 1988, when I was a 13-year-old boy in a provincial town in Derbyshire, being in possession of Erasure’s number-one album The Innocents was a big deal. It was cool to know the names of the synthpop duo, Andy Bell and Vince Clarke. “Yeah, we’re going to see Andy and Vince in concert, yeah, Andy Bell, Vince Clarke, Andy and Vince,” we bantered in the playground as casually as possible. So to see Andy Bell as Torsten in Queereteria TV, relatively up close, in the flesh, was for me a piece of pop history, big deal again, nostalgia.
At Vauxhall’s LGBT+ theatre Above The Stag, where ‘Andy’ (to be read casually) happens to be a patron, the stage has been magnificently transformed by designer David Shields into a post-apocalyptic, dystopian TV studio, including a cage of sorts, in which the cryogenically preserved Torsten is being held captive. Matthew Baldwin’s Lady Domina Bizarre holds court, extracts elixir of youth cells from Torsten with a big syringe, and along with co-star Rupert, played by West-End legend Peter Straker, re-create their favourite TV programme, Club Queereteria.
Baldwin’s drag act is mesmerising, he delivers Barney Ashton-Bullock’s (who also plays Daniel, Torsten’s lover) acerbic, witty, mostly filthy script with fantastic panache. The character conforms to all the tropes of a traditional drag act – nasty, vicious, quick-witted – which did beg the question, is this conformity dated or deliberate? I’ll go with the latter, as there is the feeling that all the characters hark back to a bygone era of queerness, holding on for dear life to a golden age that had gone up in a mushroom cloud of smoke.
Ashton-Bullock, and musical director Christopher Frost, have crafted some genuinely beautiful numbers, perhaps most notably ‘We Hadn’t Slept for Twenty Years’, a song full of pathos and longing. Torsten/Andy, who is eventually released from his prison of sorts, hasn’t lost any of his pop star presence, completely owns the stage and impresses with a vocal dexterity that sent me right back to the in-awe 13-year-old.
It feels, at times, that the filth and viciousness takes too much precedence, and I leave wishing there was more of the pathos and longing, the harking back, the yearning for the lost golden age. There is room to explore more the truthful retelling of a man looking back at a life once lived, a boy once loved, with all its pain, melancholy and beauty.