“This is the face of a man who shags rent boys”
Doing exactly what it says on the tin, and a whole lot more besides, Two Short Plays About Gays is a powerful evening at the Hope Theatre, blessed by a stunningly excoriating performance from Louise Jameson. For rather than short and sweet, it is bracing and bittersweet, both shorts written by Lesley Ross (also a lyricist whose work I’ve reviewed here – Love, Lies & Lyrics – The Words of Lesley Ross) with a bruising sense of honesty and directed uncompromisingly by Nigel Fairs.
First up is Middle Aged Rent in which a gentleman d’un certain âge (Ross, performing as Gregory Ashton) recounts the experience of moving to London in the 1980s, his teenage self appearing onstage with him. The realities of leaving home as a young gay man, ostracised from his family and without any money, are presently frankly, the choices neither excused nor eulogised and crucially, they’re told with dynamism as surprises – both cruel and comic – come his way.
Ashton’s raconteur style works a dream, flashing forward in some respects here, as the cabaret feel means audience members get gently but hilariously teased. And the humour (including an ingenious gender-switch on The Beautiful South’s ‘Song For Whoever’) goes a long way to blunting some of the sharper edges of life as a rent boy, at least until an act of extraordinary kindness has a transformative effect not just in his prospects but in the formation of a vitally needed pseudo-family.
Which leads to a brief interval and then The Diva Drag, where the complexities of real family ties in all their messiness and ugliness are explored. Our protagonist is now a drag artiste and we catch up with him as he finds himself haunted by his guilty conscience, manifested by the ghost of the homophobic mother whose funeral he has opted not to attend. We’re treated to a couple of amusing drag numbers, playing off a love for 70s disaster movies, but its the heartfelt conversation, skirting around the confrontation zone, between mother and son that really captures the attention.
In these days of RuPaul’s Drag Race, it is easy to be blasé about the deeper side of drag, the psychology behind the decisions more complex than a soundbite over a Tic Tac (I could have watched a whole episode on Kim Chi and her mother) and in the space of just over a half-hour, it is extraordinary what Ross achieves here. The desperation for a mother’s approval no matter what she’s done, the validation that a wedding ring needs to give, the feelings being explored by adopting her persona onstage, the long-buried secrets we might never know and all that repressed emotion – it is fiercely, fearsomely done.
And as Merthyr Tydfil housewife Branwen, Louise Jameson is a vision in fur coat and slipper socks and a titanic presence as she blasts her way through life with a tough love, a scorching performance of heat and heart, countered well by Ashton’s Darren, well Gladys, who is working his way towards a path of potential rapprochment, the importance of laying that particular ghost to rest becoming increasingly apparent. Bittersweet but beautiful, Two Short Plays About Gays are all you need – now sashay away to the Hope.