Paper Mug Theatre’s Con-Version is a hauntingly, ferociously, effective look at queer conversion therapy at VAULT Festival
“Family is just another word for love. People don’t think you can choose either one. What do you think?“
It beggars belief that the conversation about queer conversion therapy is still one that looms so large in our society, a recent SNP leader debate throwing up clearly how regressive some political thinking remains (shame on you, Kate Forbes). But whereas I may have been naïve about this, playwright Rory Thomas-Howes is clearly alive to its ongoing dangers, as evidenced in Con-Version, a deeply thoughtful and scrupulously well-researched exploration of how it can shatter families.
Son is returning home after being despatched for a year of conversion therapy by Mother and Father. Summoned back under false pretences by Sister, the homecoming ends quickly and unhappily but all is not what it seems, it really isn’t at all, as the scene gets replayed, only this time Son has brought Fiancée with him and things play out differently. Over the course of the hour, different versions of events continually play out, calling into question the very nature of truth and whether we can create our own.
Sam Edmunds’ production for Paper Mug Theatre is ferociously good, highly theatrical in its presentation and thus profoundly affecting. Ben Garcia’s lighting and Matteo Depares’ sound work are among some of the best I’ve seen across the whole VAULT Festival in the way they evoke the f*cked-up space/time continuum here, hitting that point in the gut that just makes you feel it so much more. And Lulu Tam’s set design creates the ideal fluid playing space in which the play unfolds, frequently creating some haunting imagery (those stockinged faces!).
Thomas-Howes closely examines the need that people have to control the narrative, not only for themselves but for others too, but what is most remarkable here is the playfulness with which Con-Version deals with that. A brilliant example is a dinner table scene which gets replayed in multiple ways – as melodrama, in silent-movie style, as a live sitcom, echoes of Wandavision adding to the extraordinary impact that this production and its choices bring, even as it errs perhaps a little close to over-complex in its scattering of the puzzle pieces of its narrative.
The power dynamics around notions of control are powerfully embodied in the cast though. Elan Butler and Ruth Redman as Son and Mother respectively offer up a near-elemental struggle, often disguised in the undercurrents of their pass-ag-heavy dialogue but heart-wrenching in the diametric opposition of knowing ‘what’s best’. Alex Britt’s Neighbour’s Boy and Phoebe Ellabani’s Fiancée contrast well in their differing pulls on Son, offering emotional throughlines that leave us in no doubt as to the pernicious effects of conversion therapy, not just on queer people but on those who would seek to control them.