JT Productions  Chesil Theatre, Winchester Mark Ponsford 29 July  2023

Haunting and memorable. Writing this review on the morning after attending this quietly astonishing evening at the Chesil Theatre, I find myself replaying so many moments in my mind, and if that’s not an example of the effectiveness and power of Fine Theatre, then I don’t know what is. Six wildly contrasting monologues, judiciously selected by Mark Gatiss, all pinpointing specific times in LGBTQ History, and put before us in the Queen Ann Arms, a pub which remains, as the years progress, a consistent and somehow comforting haven, in which the characters who greet and speak to us have found sanctuary in which to reveal themselves – and to be themselves. The monologues are punctuated throughout the evening by pre-recorded (and frequently recognisable) voices, sharing facts which reflect, not always comfortingly, the attitudes of the particular times. When the final voice prior to the interval, that of the much-loved Julian Clary, announces the 1967 decriminalization of homosexuality, we know that the second half of the evening will be taking a markedly different tone.

Beginning with Mark Gatiss’ own piece, The Man On The Platform, we find ourselves in 1917, with Perce, gently and touchingly revealing his experiences during National Service, when gay men, while never revealing their sexuality, would occasionally recognize their own – “A certain liquidity of the eyes”. The ‘moment’ on the platform, so simply and touchingly described, somehow conveys a combined sense of loss with a comforting reassurance, and a reminder that Courage was not only confined to the battlefield. There is an equal, if vastly different kind of courage when time propels us forward and into the next monologue, Jackie Clune’s The Perfect Gentleman, in which Bobby (a safely androgynous name, given this scenario) bravely (and at unbelievable personal risk) realises that there can be a certain fulfilment by masquerading convincingly as the opposite sex – a theme explored with equal taste and sensitivity in the 2021 musical (also with a period setting) The Pleasure Garden. The taking of risk, in both cases, does not guarantee a happy outcome. Time moves on, and in Jon Bradfield’s Missing Alice, we meet the practical and pragmatic Alice, accepting with remarkable understanding the allowances she has had to make in her own marriage, and somehow, thankfully, finding a kind of fulfilment. Her capacity for selflessness is remarkable (although that fact would probably never have occurred to her), and her story is one that still plays out in our present time.

The second half of the evening begins with Brian Fillis’ More Anger, with full-on Phil’s personal and professional life related to us with a remarkable combination of energy, anger, frustration and great humour. We like him (as we find ourselves liking and warming to all the characters we meet in the course of this rich evening), and his positive determination in the face of adversity is remarkable, Equally remarkable, albeit in a far quieter vein, is Michael Dennis’ A Grand Day Out, in which young Andrew journeys to London, without his parents’ knowledge, to demonstrate – a day which will change his life. And finally, with the legalization of Gay Marriage in the UK, we have Gareth McLean’s piece Something Borrowed in which Steve, preparing the speech for his own Wedding, remembers much of what brought him to this moment in his life, in a potent mix of laughs and tears.

Directed by Tom Humphreys, and Produced and Directed by Jess Pickford, Queers is performed by a uniformly first-rate cast. Craig Phelps (Perce) invites us gently and touchingly into his story; and Zoe Stanford (Bobby) skillfully evokes pathos without pity, not least when reciting the verse to the Music Hall staple ‘Berlington Bertie from Bow’. When she ultimately delivers the line “I shake from my cuff/ All the whiskers and fluff/ Stick my hat on, and toddle Up West”, the implication of that song is suddenly changed forever. Katy Watkins’ Alice is almost serene in her matter-of-fact sharing of her experience – and all the more touching for it. Tom Humphreys, as Phil, runs a veritable gamut of moods and emotions, a hugely endearing presence. Every bit as endearing, albeit in an infinitely quieter way, is Arthur Wood, whose Andrew is beautifully timed and delivered. (NB: The programme tells us that his dream role is Hamlet, and for my money we all need to be there when the day arrives.) Bringing the evening to a close, in ‘Something Borrowed’, Steve Clark’s exquisitely pitched performance builds to practically an emotional comfort blanket, as he – and we – realise how far the journey to this moment has been, and we share his joyous tears as he voices his love for the man we know he will spend the rest of his life with.

Leaving the theatre to the strains of Mama Cass singing ‘Make Your Own Kind Of Music’ (could there have been a more perfect song to reflect this occasion?), I found myself recalling the 2017 TV documentary Prejudice and Pride, and one particular woman describing, with huge dignity, some of her life experiences, not all of which had been easy. Susan Calman, interviewing, movingly responded, “So you went through all of that… so I could have a better life”. I cried at the time. Recalling that moment, and recalling the dignity shared with us throughout this evening’s performance, I cried again. As the programme’s introductory note states, “Life is greater when we love each other equally. A lesson for us all.