Review: GRILLS, Camden People’s Theatre

A fascinating slice of underexplored social history, GRILLS speaks volubly to the LGBTQIA+ experience at Camden People’s Theatre

“What is it that you want from the archive?”

Headlining its Camden Roar festival, Camden People’s Theatre has hit on something of a winner with GRILLS. Hyper-local in its subject matter – the history of the Camden Lesbian Centre & Black Lesbian Group (CLCBLG) in the 1980s – co-creators Chloe Christian and Olivia Dowd also draw out multiple threads that speak so strikingly to the LGBTQIA+ community today, particularly in an increasingly fractious social and political climate.

Queer nerds Vall, Bee, Jaz and Mo are exploring the archives of the CLCBLG because, of course, funding cuts closed the centre. And where else would the archive be, but in Glasgow?! As they delve through the material they find, Christian, Dowd and co-writer afshan d’souza lodhi cut between modern-day scenes and flashbacks to the 1980s, to the history suggested by the files, folders and fragments of stories of such a vital and vibrant part of Camden’s social history.

There’s so much to pack into a short space of time but Christian’s imaginative direction allows for free-flowing cuts between the two time periods. Period details like personal stereos take us back to the 80s with a smile but there’s also a profound evocation of the uncertainty of the time too, with the dawn of Section 28 and its state-sanctioned homophobia, the centre’s helpline as busy with hate calls as genuine calls for help and support from young queers.

GRILLS doesn’t shy away from some of the more difficult conversations around Black and trans identities in the centre (and the community at large). The merger of the CLC and the BLG was a financial necessity but we see the Black Lesbian Group’s priorities constantly being diminished. There’s a deeply nuanced conversation around trans inclusion that spans the decade and beautifully humanises an issue that is often used as a red flag by agitators. And there’s a fascinating thread about online communities (one character has a podcast, another is a TikTokker) and meaningful engagement, as follower counts in their thousands are contrasted with visits to the archive capping at 62 a year.

For all the issues raised though, there’s also a gorgeous sense of community that sings through, and of how valuable and essential that was and still is, from dancehall and line dancing to an inspired reading of a coming out letter written to an unwitting husband. The chemistry in the company of Olivia Dowd, Ishmael Kirby, India Jean-Jacques and Jaye Hudson is palpable, as they flow in and out of scenes as multiple characters, giving voice to history that needs to be reclaimed, remembered and rejoiced.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *