Tuesday 7th February 2023 at Ambassadors Theatre
Reviewer: Emma Dorfman
Rob Madge, former West End child actor, has turned into a bold solo performer with something important to say (and sometimes, to sing) in My Son’s a Queer (but what can you do?). Using projected video which showcases real footage from several moments in their childhood, Madge traces the very beginnings of their love of theatre, in which they would often put on elaborate- and very funny- ‘living room productions’ for everyone in their family to see and, more often than not, participate in.
Madge’s VHS archival tapes are some of the strongest source material I have seen, perhaps ever. From young Rob spinning their gran round a big black office chair, simulating the Teacups ride at Disneyland, to dressing up as their best Peter Pan whilst teaching their mum how to ‘fly’ (she has her torso on the seat of the swing outside, letting the rest of her body hang as the swing twists around), these moments from Rob’s childhood are delightfully precocious, diva-like, and provide a perfect explanation as to how Madge came to be who they are today– an unabashed, dramatic performer.
Their humble origins, however, now seem largely disconnected to the big budget West End production we see in front of us. As much as I regret not seeing My Son’s a Queer at Edinburgh Fringe, I especially regret it after seeing this production.
The childlike inventiveness with which young Rob must have approached their living room productions is rendered completely unnecessary in this production: Ryan Dawson Laight’s set design, for instance, is full of oversized, completely unblemished, and un-lived-in furniture and knick knacks. Jai Morjaria’s lighting, too – spectacular with its bright pink and purple hues, is a far cry from the equipment Madge had available in childhood (see their bit on the use of ‘special fx’, in which they demanded of their dad ‘Don’t film me!’ as they dangle from a harness, attempting to master the flying effect on the living room stage).
There is the finale, however. And it is here in which we experience what those living room productions must have been like. Madge undergoes more costume changes than you thought were humanly possible when they recreate their infamous ‘Disney Parade’. We finally get to see what Rob has been gushing about for the past 55 minutes, and the real magic arrives: a Princess Ariel wig made of red tinsel, yellow floaties to make Belle’s arms on her yellow dress, thick blackish-grey rubbish bags, draped to create Maleficent’s cloak.
I craved more of these moments, as the parts of Madge’s performance that were most effective were those in which they used their own past to inform or explain their present. In one of their musical numbers, for instance, they lament why there must be only two sections- one for boys and one for girls- when going clothes shopping. Here, adult Madge arrives at the conclusion of a certain fluidity, though it would be particularly impressive if 6-year-old Rob was aware that gender was a spectrum at that moment in time. Whilst moments like this were perhaps less successful, the moments in which Madge asked for radical inclusion were the most successful.
One particularly riveting moment, for instance, was following Rob giving up ‘being different’ and ‘playing pretend’. They had clearly become depressed, resolved never to dress up or play pretend or hold their living room productions ever again. But then, one Christmas, they receive a gift. Their grandparents have created their own miniature theatre, complete with red velvet show curtain. Rob’s gran has sewn together puppet characters so that when they’re told they can’t be someone else, they can have these puppets become those characters instead.
Here, Madge gushes about their luck: not every queer child is so lucky to not only have a family that accepts them for who they are, but embraces them wholly.
My Son’s a Queer (but what can you do?) is at Ambassadors Theatre, London until March 18th 2023 – you can find more information and tickets here.
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