‘Valuable additions to the expanded series’: QUEERS – Old Vic (Online review)

In London theatre, Online shows, Opinion, Plays, Reviews by John ChapmanLeave a Comment

An actor/writer I much admire is Mark Gatiss. One of the trio of performers/quartet of writers that make up The League Of Gentlemen, he has made telling contributions to Dr WhoSherlockDraculaGame Of Thrones and Wolf Hall on TV, was a memorable monarch in The Madness Of King George III and was a match for the star power of Tom Hiddleston in Coriolanus. He has made some interesting documentaries for BBC4, written novels and screenplays, is an aficionado of horror and ghost stories; an extensive CV with many strands and he’s good at all of them.

In 2017 he curated a set of eight monologues called Queers produced to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the Sexual Offences Act. These were seen at the Old Vic and also filmed  for BBC TV starring the likes of Alan Cumming, Ben Wishaw, Gemma Whelan and Russell Tovey. And now, under his watch, the octet has become a dectet (is that right?) with the streaming of two new pieces from the Old Vic theatre developed to celebrate Pride month. The first references a moment in history while the second takes a broader more contemporary sweep of recent events but what unites them is that they present the experiences of wider elements of the LGBTQ+ community who also happen to be black; the original series was rather under representative in this area.

I Threw It by Travis Alabanza takes, as its starting point, the Stonewall Riot of 1969 when police raided a gay bar in New York and violence ensued. Apparently the flare point for this was whoever threw the first brick at the officers and the unknown identity of this person has gained almost legendary status over the years with various claims, counter claims and denials being issued as to who was the perpetrator.

Two people often pointed to are trans women of colour, Marsha P Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, and both have been at the forefront of the LGBTQ+ rights movement that grew out of the historic event. Alabanza’s script references this moment somewhat obliquely if you don’t know the above (and, I confess I didn’t) and the monologist played by Kim Tatum would seem to be an amalgam of the two activists who goes on to talk about taking action against perceived injustice.

I didn’t find it a particularly engaging watch mainly because I hadn’t, at that stage, understood the reference point but also because it all seemed a bit too much like a sermon designed to influence my thought processes rather than a piece of drama. Tatum’s performance is forceful and delivered with a sense of dignity, but I only really found it of interest after some later research.

The second piece appealed rather more. Jade Anouka is perhaps better known as an actor of some renown but has written Bee a play which looks at the recent pandemic experiences through a particular lens. The protagonist is a midwife and gives us a first hand account of what working in the health service has been like. There is particular disquiet over the appropriation of the Pride flag as a piece of NHS symbolism and the lack of any practical support as “clap for carers” became a way to salve consciences without any financial cost. Just like the insect referenced in the title we cannot do without such dedicated workers but at the same time should remain aware that they have a sting which can be deployed fairly readily. Pearl Mackie is the performer in this instance and has created a delightful character who allows her thoughts to wander freely as she diversifies across a range of subjects. The piece seemed to end rather than finish (I assure you there is a distinction) but at least it was on an optimistic note.

I definitely preferred the second piece but both are valuable additions to the expanded series. However, neither reached the heights of some of those and if you haven’t seen them before they are running on BBC iPlayer concurrently with this Old Vic stream so its still perfectly possible for you to judge this assessment for yourselves. Whether the series will continue to expand I am not sure, but Mark Gatiss is to be congratulated for expanding his already extensive CV. It would be a real treat if, given that he has the time with his busy schedule, he might appear in one himself.

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John Chapman
John Chapman works as a freelance education consultant, writer and copy editor. Prior to this, he was an Assistant Headteacher specialising in English and Drama. John first took to the stage as a schoolboy pretending to be a Latin frog. Decades later, he has been involved with 150+ productions, usually as an actor or director. He is currently a member of Tower Theatre in Stoke Newington, London. In 2016, he was in their “mechanicals” team that worked as part of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s A Midsummer Night's Dream: A Play For The Nation, appearing both at the Barbican and in Stratford-upon-Avon. In 2004, he served as a panellist on the Olivier Awards; he is currently an Offies assessor. He reviews for a variety of websites, writes his own independent blog 2ndFromBottom about his theatrical life.
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John Chapman on RssJohn Chapman on Twitter
John Chapman
John Chapman works as a freelance education consultant, writer and copy editor. Prior to this, he was an Assistant Headteacher specialising in English and Drama. John first took to the stage as a schoolboy pretending to be a Latin frog. Decades later, he has been involved with 150+ productions, usually as an actor or director. He is currently a member of Tower Theatre in Stoke Newington, London. In 2016, he was in their “mechanicals” team that worked as part of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s A Midsummer Night's Dream: A Play For The Nation, appearing both at the Barbican and in Stratford-upon-Avon. In 2004, he served as a panellist on the Olivier Awards; he is currently an Offies assessor. He reviews for a variety of websites, writes his own independent blog 2ndFromBottom about his theatrical life.

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