Edinburgh Fringe 2018
Lewis and Glen, shop assistants at the legendary 1980s lesbian, gay and feminist book store Lavender Menace, are rehearsing in the store in the middle of the night for their homage to store owners Bob Orr and Sigrid Nielsen to be performed the next day at Sigrid’s farewell party. Through an array of literary references, musical numbers, re-enacted memories and flirtation, Lewis and Glen share their their love for this place -“for the first time in history, we found a place to exist” – and their fears for a gentrified future – “progress is a capitalist trap”.
Lavendar Menace opened its doors in Forth Street, Edinburgh in 1982 and fast became the cornerstone of the gay and lesbian communities in the city. This production is a love song to a moment in time before we had online retailers and international chain bookstores, when a real sense of community could build around a bookshop. To a time when homosexuality had not long been decriminalised in Scotland and this long overdue liberation and recognition was being explored in the public view. To a time when Lavender Menace was the first “gay place” many people had visited in Scotland, providing an alternative to the gay clubbing scene which some may have found intimidating.
Love Song to Lavender Menace is a tale of big business coming in and pushing out the authentic voices that made the area cool to begin with, like a queer Empire Records with more literary references and almost as much music, minus the clear-cut ‘underdog triumphs despite the odds’ ending.
Matthew McVarish as Glen and Pierce Reid as Lewis are both wonderfully charismatic performers with a beautiful chemistry. Lewis is a romantic soul whose conviction that things will never be the same again once Sigrid leaves and the bookshop moves to new premises has prompted him to plan to leave Edinburgh straight after they perform the homage. His insecurity doesn’t allow him to believe Glen’s repeated direct references to the attraction he felt to him when they first met and indeed, clearly still feels now. Glen insists that he knows his own feelings – “I’m not just a character in your story”.
Alongside the main narrative, there runs the story of a married man repressing his sexuality who is drawn to the bookstore, combating his feelings of shame to walk past on his lunch break. In stark contrast to the confidence Lewis and Glen feel in their sexuality, here is another tale of homosexuality, a man for whom decriminalisation laws didn’t automatically allow for coming out of the closet to open-minded, accepting friends and family.
James Ley’s smart, funny script is packed with ’80s nostalgia, discussions of seminal gay literature including James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room and the works of E.M. Forster and meta-theatrical references to the play-within-a-play, with Lewis amusingly questioning whether they can fit all this extra political discussion into the homage without detracting from the main narrative and both characters calling each other out for playing the versions of themselves from six years ago in the way they wish they’d been rather than the way they were.
For those who lived in Edinburgh in the ’80s and were aware of this hotbed of counterculture this play must be a beautiful tribute. For the rest of us, it’s a fascinating insight into an important period of Scottish LGBT+ history and just a great afternoon at the theatre. Highly recommended.