Camden Fringe 2019
This new play by Kimberley Turford and James Easey takes us into a world where all queer people must possess a Gay-Card in order to get by. By doing so it brings us face to face with extremely topical queer issues as well as queer history. There is plenty to learn, lots of comedy and even audience interaction.
“Do YOU have what it takes to get your Gay-Card?” Being attracted to people of the same sex is not enough. You have to go to CAMP and prove your gayness if you want the community to respect you. You need to study queer history, become knowledgeable about the issues surrounding the LGBTQ+ community and even write your own thesis on an LGBTQ+ topic.
The play follows the journey of Becky (Camille Willhem), Mary (Fizz Waller) and Felix (Nicholas Marrast-Lewis) three very different people who have all earned their spot in CAMP. Becky is bisexual, well studied and on a mission to educate others. Mary is a lesbian who in the past turned to God to “cure” herself but is now finally embracing her queerness. And Felix is an outgoing and confident gay man who doesn’t really seem to think studying is necessary.
With a very simple stage and tech, there is nowhere to hide. It is up to the actors to tell the story and create that world for us and they do not disappoint. The standard is extremely high and all three actors have amazing energy throughout the piece. They have of course some excellent writing to work with. The direction is great too because it utilises the circumstances (being in a small fringe venue with a minimal set) rather than ignoring them. The minimal lighting changes are used well, the transitions run smoothly and the actors switch characters on stage completely naturally.
But the main reason all this works is the strong relationship between the actors and the audience that is established from early on. There are moments when the fourth wall breaks and we are completely immersed in their world. The lighting and change in energy make it very clear when these moments are. So when we are asked a question we know full well we are free to answer. At the same time it is also very clear which moments are private, abide by traditional rules of theatre and we are only observing them.
This is a political piece and a brilliant comedy, it provides full immersive entertainment while tackling some super sensitive issues. A lot of which, even people within the LGBTQ+ community still struggle to agree on. Such is bi-erasure (the idea that people cannot be bi and their sexual orientation is only defined by their current partner, while any other previous experiences are deemed a ‘phase’ as well as the reinforcement of this idea). This is a subject that runs throughout the play with Felix and Becky getting into heated arguments about it. Some of these arguments as well as Becky’s speech near the end might come across as quite preachy. But at no point does it feel like the writers are preaching through Becky – no, it is the character, this is who she is and Willhem embodies her truthfully. You are allowed not to like Becky and consider her too opinionated, but no claim can be made that the writing or the performance lacked in any way.
Another issue that is mentioned but kind of brushed over is transphobia. There is a criticism to be made here about not giving more weight to trans issues and the problems they face even within the LGBTQ+ community. But ultimately this is a one-hour piece focusing on homosexuality and bisexuality so even the fact that transphobia is mentioned rather than ignored is good. There is definitely room for a bit more though – for example during one of the class sessions or the quiz to the audience, it would be great to highlight how the trans community has helped validate the gay and bi communities through the years. Trans people have always been there and yet to this date they are ignored or invalidated even by the very people they helped.
The highlight of the show is the interactive moments. The very first one, a quiz to the audience about queer history is so unexpected and so exciting to experience. It doesn’t seem odd, because we are at CAMP, this is what happens here; people get tested on their queer knowledge! The three actors are completely dependent on our reactions and answers and they demonstrate outstanding improvisation skills. With Waller giving a stellar performance that is so confident and so polished even renowned stand-up comedians could learn from her. The amount of perfectly timed jokes that could not have been pre-planned was uncanny. My favourite being her reaction when an audience member answered one of her questions before she had even finished reading.
And just like that the lights change and the actors go back to their main characters, the boundaries are reset and we are there to watch only – until the next immersive moment.
Everything seems to fit well within that one hour, except for Felix’s journey. At some point in the story, there is a big change within his character, but it is never fully fleshed out. His behaviour towards Becky changes and he starts feeling awkward around her, especially when she is with Mary. My instinct was to think that for the first time in his life Felix is experiencing attraction towards the opposite sex and his idea that bisexuality isn’t “real” crumbles when he realises he could be on a spectrum too. But this theory is never confirmed nor debunked, because we never really find out what’s going on with Felix. Perhaps this is where the show could benefit from an additional fifteen minutes or maybe sacrifice something else to ensure that Felix’s story is fully told. For example, trim down Becky’s final speech or cut some of the immersive moments a bit short.
It is amazing to see a new fringe theatre company putting on work of this high standard. The writing is excellent, the comedy and audience interaction brilliant, the staging and tech efficient and the performances on point. There is plenty to learn and plenty to think about. Oh – and a guest appearance from a very, very convincing Cher (played by Waller). Most importantly as the audience leaves the auditorium we are all awarded our very own Gay-Card (and yes there is glitter on it). This show deserves to be seen by a much larger audience than a run at the Camden Fringe can offer. Congratulations and here’s hoping this is not the end.