Spotlight on: The Best of LGBTQ+ Stories & Characters on Stage

Just in the nick of time, I’m marking the last few hours of Pride Month with a look at some of the best examples of theatre productions celebrating and exploring LGBTQ+ stories, characters, history and culture. From accosting social commentary to joyous sequin-clad drag queens to moving takes on body dysmorphia and transgender experiences and over to pure and simple love stories, these shows are winners when it comes to improving and increasing representation on our stages. There’s also well-earned recognition for productions which have embedded some great visibility by broadening the horizons of established works to include LGBTQ+ characters where there were none to be seen before – let’s hope we see more of that progressive adaptation when theatres emerge from lockdown. In no particular order then…

Everybody’s Talking About Jamie

As far as important recent new works are concerned, this new musical is pretty high on the list. Following the true story of young Jamie as he navigates a rocky experience of secondary school alongside an unhappy relationship with his father, this musical beautifully seeks to represent the varied experience of growing up gay. There are more friends than there are bullies and for every harsh word there are ten kind ones. There are drag queens to guide, a truly fab best mate and a great mum to unconditionally love. There’s even a heart-warming display of the power of young voices when united in support of doing the right thing. What’s not to love?

The View Upstairs

This musical from Max Vernon is inspired by heartbreaking history. In 1973, an arson attack destroyed the Upstairs Lounge and killed 32 of its patrons. The Upstairs lounge and spaces like it were a sanctuary for the LGBTQ+ community to escape the cruelty of an intolerant society – a place to sit comfortably in their own skin without fear. Such places provided a sense of belonging for its patrons but also offered opportunistic police officers and others an easy target for exploitation, intimidation and violence. Vernon captures the warmth of those self-made safe spaces alongside the sense of threat and fear of the intolerant world outside brilliantly, offering us plenty of charm and wit even as we take the road towards tragedy.

The View UpStairs also provides an interesting exploration of dynamics within the community and the language reclaimed and used so freely in contemporary circles which horrifies and devastates the characters existing in a 70s limbo. Vernon looks at how such language is so tied up with more confident, modern LGBTQ+ expressions of identity while it once had the opposite impact when used so viciously to attack the community decades ago. Uplifting, enlightening and bitingly blunt, The View UpStairs is one of the best shows of recent years.

Priscilla, Queen of the Desert

This one never fails to get toes tapping and moods lifting, for sure. Following the story of three friends, Tick, Adam and Bernadette as they head out on a drag show tour, this show looks at family, friendship and the experiences faced by gay and trans people as they travel between various communities. Even while it basks in a steady stream of hit musical numbers, the show doesn’t shy away from scenes of homophobic attacks both verbal and physical, making sure that while audiences are entertained by these gay and trans characters, they don’t lose sight of their struggles in the face of intolerance and cruelty.

Priscilla also offers a lovely glimpse of elements not so widely explored via the focus on the experience of a gay father whose young son proves to be supportive of both his dad and his dad’s drag career. This is a joyous celebration of living loud and proud, coming out and learning self-acceptance – all while showcasing some of the best costumes and musical numbers to be found on a stage!

RENT

Jonathan Larson’s widely celebrated and award winning musical remains unflinching, poignant and thoroughly entertaining. Debuting in 1996, there’s a distinct timelessness to this story following friends and lovers as they bicker and love by turns. This show has also gifted us some of the best songs in musical theatre – who doesn’t love Seasons of Love, I’ll Cover You, or Take Me or Leave Me? And let’s not get started on how this show highlights the craft of a devastating reprise… Zeroing in on emotional pressure points, Rent dives into the deep end to portray everything from living with AIDS to struggling with addiction to good old fashioned falling in love – all while fighting the establishment and doubling down on their ‘struggling artist with integrity’ identities.

Featuring lesbian, bi and gay characters going through the mill, Rent is one big messily beautiful display of human experience, sweeping the board when it comes to creating visibility for LGBTQ+ characters and stories. Did I mention there’s a glorious drag queen with plenty of mischievous charm too?

Kinky Boots

Another show balancing sequins with social commentary. Based on the true story of a fella who sought to save his shoe factory by producing shoes for drag queens, the story looks at friendship and tolerance with plenty of fun and razzle dazzle. Particularly winning are the exploration of masculinity (beautifully articulated in Not My Father’s Son) and the mild exploration of underlying and unconscious intolerance alongside the explicit homophobia on display. It’s also great to see tables turned with the older generation proving more accepting and progressive than some of the younger characters. Ultimately love and understanding win the day and while it may seem a tad Disney in spirit, it’s always nice to see bigots overcome their flaws, even just a little.

She/he/it Happens

One of those truly enriching and enlightening shows. Exploring the experience of chest dysmorphia and the struggle to be comfortable in your own skin, Mitchell Jay’s S/he/it Happens is both moving and vitally insightful. Never before or since has the concept of dysmorphia or the experience of an unspoken inner turmoil been so well communicated in theatre work I’ve seen and I felt wholly better off for having seen the show (and it’s still the best show I’ve seen at the Camden Fringe to date).

Riot Act

A brilliant use of verbatim theatre if ever there was one. Alexis Gregory’s one man show takes the testimonies of three important LGBTQ+ advocates and activists and brings them centre stage. Across the performance he takes on the roles of a witness to the Stonewall riots, a drag queen with plenty to say about the history of the craft and a truly inspirational gent who lived and lost throughout the AIDS epidemic. Gently comic and loudly insightful, this is a show which should certainly see a further future in touring.

You’ve Changed, Kate & Hayley and Me

I still have a copy of the advice sheet Kate O’Donnell handed out at the end of this show. It’s a breath-taking insight into the experience of transitioning in a time when gender reassignment was being navigated by clueless professionals and the world at large was equally as clueless. In You’ve Changed, Kate, audiences are given a whistle stop tour of O’Donnell’s journey as a trans woman who in her own words began transitioning in the relative ‘dark ages’: 2003. It’s a deeply personal and surprisingly frank show which entertains and educates in equal measure. Few shows go as far as this one in fearlessly and charmingly bringing the experience of another to light and as with S/He/It Happens, I came out of that show feeling privileged to have learned so much by being there.

Another of Kate’s shows, Hayley and Me explores the pivotal role of the Coronation Street’s Hayley Cropper in her journey, outlining the importance of that trans representation in the 90s, even while it was flawed. Poking fun at soap melodrama while outlining the colossal significance of a trans character in such a popular prime time family soap, Hayley and Me is another corker of a show which entertains as much as it teaches.

Wilde Without the Boy

Pairing Wilde’s wisdom and cutting commentary on love and betrayal in a time of gay men being imprisoned for ‘the love that dare not speak its name’, this production starring Gerard Logan not only offers the beauty of Wilde’s own words and his scathing testimony but also a brilliant point of reference to encourage reflection on the progress made to date.

Things I Know to Be True

Amongst the various transformative experiences and struggles of the Price family explored in Andrew Bovell’s play, the story of Mia is the most moving. With parents having raised a son and siblings having grown up with a brother, it’s the biggest shock of all to learn that the person they know and love as Mark is a trans woman eager to begin the physical process of transitioning. They must learn to process Mia’s wishes and her sense of self and in that dynamic lies an awful lot of power in that sensitively handled but deeply affecting piece of the Price family story.

La Cage Aux Folles

As far as anthems go, I Am Who I Am is one of the greats and seeing it performed whole-heart-exposed within the context of this musical is pretty special. The show deals with the complex family dynamic of a gay father bowing to his son’s request to have his effeminate and deeply dramatic partner kept in the shadows as the uptight future in-laws visit. It’s a comic and moving lesson in the importance of acceptance and refusing to entertain any facade which requires a gay man to feign a straight existence for the approval of those who don’t deserve a second glance, never mind a seat at the family table. Oh yes, and Albin happens to be a drag artist so there’s plenty of big lights and high kicks to enjoy too.

Joan

Where to start with this Drag King Cabaret/historical re-telling/dramedy? This is a really important and very special show. The incredibly clever writing of Lucy Skilbeck and the immense talents of Lucy Parkinson (aka drag king LoUis CYfer) bring not just the untold story of Joan of Arc to the stage but also a very comic yet touching study of oppressive gender expectations too.

Mother/Son

This one tops my list by a long way and I struggle to talk or write about Mother/Son without falling into hyperbole in a big way simply because it’s so tied up with my initiation into the world of what it meant to have a gay close friend in need of support. Geoffrey Solomon’s one man gem of a show explores his tragi-comic relationship with his quirky and inifinitely loving mother…who just wants him to settle down with a nice Jewish girl and get to making grandbabies. Except…Geoffrey is gay, of course.

The show isn’t a deep dive into the struggles of coming out but rather a comic and sensitive insight into the initial flippancy and gentle reluctance of a mother who eventually learns to accept and support her son. A few months into my attempts to support a friend terrified of telling her own family that her future wouldn’t feature a husband (and as the sole keeper of this secret), I was beyond grateful to have Mother/Son give me some idea of what might await my pal and what it might mean to become a useful ally. There’s no limit to my love for this one!

And then there are the progressive revamps to celebrate. Various productions have recently done a brilliant job of bringing gay characters and relationships into the folds of classics.

Company

In Marianne Elliott’s superb revamp of Sondheim’s bachelor musical comedy, various changes were made to modernise and broaden the scope of stories told. For the first time, Company features a gay couple as one of its peripheral unions flanking the single Bobbi (female in this production). Taking a story which was male-centric and rife with various outdated notions attached to gender roles and offering up great representation attached to some of the best comedy the production has to offer, this show is a real diamond. That representation and spotlight on a gay marriage is just one jewel in the crown of the new and improved Company, but it’s an important one. And Jonny Bailey earned that Olivier with every second of that performance!

A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Globe and Bridge Theatre productions)

Emma Rice’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Globe gives us a gay Athenian struggling to come to terms with his sexuality. In creating Helenus from the original role of Helena, Demetrius’ brutal and repeated rejections of Helenus’ infatuation are more a rejection of his own troubling thoughts, offering an interesting sub-plot of self-discovery as he fights his unspoken truth and eventually accepts his feelings towards Helenus.

Nicholas Hytner’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream has Oberon fall for Nick Bottom as opposed to Titania. Not only that but the production briefly strays from Will’s original work to have Hermia exposed to the magic potion, causing her too to fall for Helena, leading to an unexpected smooch and thereby allowing the production to celebrate gay and lesbian loves, however beholden to magical interference they may be…

Hamlet

Amy Leach’s brilliant production of Hamlet at Leeds Playhouse adapted various roles to explore gender shifts and in offering Hamlet the princess rather than the prince, the relationship with Ophelia, while remaining tragic and brutal, at least allowed for a lesbian love to briefly take centre stage in a Shakespearean great. Let’s not forget that the stereotypical demographic for Shakespearean productions also means that such a shift provided vital LGBTQ+ representation in front of audiences who might not necessarily have booked to see shows billed as LGBTQ+ stories.

Pride and Prejudice* (*sort of)

In Isobel McArthur’s adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel, Lizzie Bennet’s bestie, Charlotte, doesn’t merely hold a torch for Lizzie’s beauty and charm in a green-eyed kind of way, she holds a proper romantic torch for her pal (perfectly punctuated with a snippet of The Divine Comedy’s Everybody Knows that I Love You). It’s a fleeting moment but importantly, it is by no means thrown away or awkwardly tacked on, instead it offers beautifully embedded representation in a subtle, meaningful way as opposed to bowing to tokenism. It’s interesting how much additional tragedy that early moment brings to Charlotte’s fate as wife of the dreaded Mr C too. Giving Charlotte a beat to acknowledge such a thing as two women in a relationship as a silly nonsense is also a nice little reference to the gradual shifting of time and expectations between Austen’s world and ours…

So there you have it! Here’s hoping I’ll have some cracking shows to add to this list in the not too distant future…

Note: the cover image is the 2018 Progress Pride Flag design from Daniel Quasar – read about it here.

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