The Laramie Project: Death of an American icon

Review of the stage play about the death of Matthew Shepard, performed at the Cochrane Theatre in March 2003. Written for UK.

Every so often, society makes a hero or heroine of a victim of particularly heinous crimes – Stephen Lawrence, Damilola Taylor… Matthew Shepard. The gay Wyoming 21-year-old college student who was brutally assaulted, then left tied to a fence until he was found eighteen hours later, became known around the world even as he lay in hospital in a coma, awaiting certain death.

Moisés Kaufman and the Tectonic Theater Project visited Shepard’s hometown of Laramie and interviewed many of its residents – be they people who knew either Matthew or his murderers, or other townsfolk who got caught up in the events that followed his death. Those interviews form the basis of his play, The Laramie Project, which has started its first London run.

And it’s the play’s commitment to preserving the nature of the source material that marks one of the major faults with the piece. Instead of an unfolding drama, the story is presented in the main as a series of monologues, as the small troupe of student actors imitate Laramie residents with variable degrees of success. Some scenes become incredibly engaging, drawing the audience in to the story with eloquence and grace – only for the next character in the line to break the spell. There are some scenes of real power: when the ER doctor who treated both Matthew and one of his attackers on the same night muses on the painful irony of that situation, one felt the seed of a truly brilliant dramatic work just waiting to take root. Sadly there are far too many other scenes that fall short.

This is not, for the main part, the fault of the actors. As a group of American college students, even the worst actor is of a high standard. Indeed, one performance, that of Fred Sykes, is mesmerising in its intensity throughout. For all the Hollywood stars visiting the West End stage, you would be hard pressed to see a finer display of American acting ability.

It is the content of the play that ultimately lets it down. One cannot help but feel there is an element of unintentional hypocrisy on display. At one point, a student recalls how at a candlelit vigil for Matthew, someone stood up and exhorted the crowd to show the world that Laramie’s “not that kind of town” – but it is, she notes. It’s a moving speech, one that makes us start to think about the nature of public mourning, and the seeming need to be seen to grieve (as evinced in this country with Soham, or Princess Diana). And yet, when later we hear how a small candlelit procession at the end of a homecoming parade grew to 500 people and eventually outnumbered the parade proper, we are asked to accept that at face value without asking, “why?”

The lack of focus that runs through the play means that we get portrayals of the actors who took the initial interviews that at times actually detract from the power of the scenes they’re supposed to be witnessing. At one point, as the local pastor recounts how he wishes that Shepard was able to reflect on the deviant nature of his lifestyle while he was tied, bleeding, to the fence, the power and horror we should rightly feel is completely undermined by the two interviewers’ need to hug each other afterwards. It’s an unnecessary counterpoint of the sort that dogs the whole production.

That said, occasional flashes of brilliance show just how strong this cast, and this production, has the potential to be. The image of Shepard, with the only part of his body not covered in blood the tracks on his cheeks where his tears had washed him clean, is one that will remain with you far after you’ve forgotten the rest of the play – as will Dennis Shepard’s statement to the court; again, Fred Sykes owns the auditorium as he asks the judge not to pass a death sentence, not out of mercy, but because a life sentence in full knowledge of what the killer has done will wreak far more vengeance.

If the rest of the play were of the calibre of those moments, this would be a classic. As it is, this is a piece that causes us to think more than the playwright probably intended, and in different ways. While good drama should always let us find our answers, this is one drama that requires we start asking our own questions, because those on stage don’t let us off from that task.

To boldly come out?

For a television series and multi-million dollar movie franchise that loves to wear its liberal agenda on its sleeve, Star Trek has not been well known for covering gay issues. Indeed, on the few occasions in the past when it has approached the edge, it has done so in such a ham-fisted manner that it’s acquired more brickbats than bouquets from the gay community.This may soon all change, as a new episode of the prequel series Enterprise airs in the US.

Set 150 years before the time of original series’ Captain Kirk, Spock and Doctor McCoy, Enterprise tells the tale of the first human-piloted spaceship to explore the galaxy. Captain Jonathan Archer (Quantum Leap’s Scott Bakula) is assisted by Vulcan Science Officer T’Pol (Jolene Blalock), who is to become the centre of a new storyline that has obvious parallels with 20th Century Earth.

In the new episode, Stigma, it is revealed that T’Pol is receiving secret treatment from the ship’s doctor for a disease commonly associated with a minority of Vulcans. Doctor Phlox has to reluctantly consult Vulcan physicians on her treatment, knowing T’Pol’s career will be over if her condition becomes public.

It transpires that T’Pol acquired the disease in an episode shown in the previous season of the TV show. Transmission occurs not by sex, but by ‘mind-meld’ – which, for the emotionally repressed Vulcans, is as intimate and arousing as they get.

The concept of the mind-meld has been around since the days of Spock. Indeed, by the time Star Trek: Voyager finished, it happened more or less every episode. However, the producers have taken advantage of Enterprise’s earlier time frame to redefine the process. In the mid-22nd Century, only a handful of Vulcans indulge in a practice that the ‘moral majority’ see as distasteful at best. Because of the prejudice around the practice, funding and research for the disease to which T’Pol has succumbed is scarce.

At this point, if you haven’t spotted the allegory nothing will get through to you. This episode is part of a global push by media company Viacom (who own Paramount, Enterprise’s producers, as well as MTV and Queer As Folk US producers Showtime) to increase HIV and Aids awareness and prevention messages across all their media outlets.

But is it enough?

Continue reading “To boldly come out?”

A Dangerous Thing, by Josh Lanyon

Originally published on UK

A group of university archaeologists are camped out in a Californian forest. One of the team, of Native American descent, is convinced the place is haunted – and the weird nighttime sounds that are spooking them all out are slowly convincing the rest of them.

It sounds more like the setup for an episode of Scooby Doo than a murder mystery, but the latest novel from Gay Men’s Press enters areas that Hanna-Barbera’s ‘Mystery Machine crew’ would never dare approach.

In A Dangerous Thing by Josh Lanyon, bookseller-turned-crime writer Adrien English escapes out to the Pine Shadow Ranch, bequeathed to him by his beloved grandmother, in the hope of overcoming his writer’s block and to sort out in his head his frustrating relationship with the S/M-obsessed LAPD detective that he met in Lanyon’s first book, Fatal Shadows.

Continue reading “A Dangerous Thing, by Josh Lanyon”

The Ropemaker’s Daughter, by Virginia Smith

Originally written for UK

We’ve all told little white lies on a first date. First impressions matter, we’re always being told, so it pays to come across as interesting as possible. A little hint of thrill in one’s job here, a dark secret in a slightly-murky-but-not-threateningly-so past there. After all, if the relationship doesn’t go anywhere it’s not going to matter, and if it does, well, your new partner will look over such indiscretions. Right?

Wrong — at least, for the heroine of The Ropemaker’s Daughter, an amazing first novel by Virginia Smith. Rebecca is a habitual liar, concocting elaborate past histories with which to enthral men, safe in the knowledge that they’re not going to get to know her and so will never find out the truth — that she’s little more than a Southampton librarian. This is all well and fine, until she meets someone who’s an even better liar than she is. He claims he’s Adam, Rebecca’s ex-boyfriend who she dumped a year earlier, but she knows differently for two reasons. Firstly, he looks nothing like her ex — but more significantly, the real Adam had thrown himself off a cliff ten months earlier.

Rebecca enlists the help of Paige, a woman who also knows the fake ‘Adam’, to find out just who he is and why he’s tormenting her by posing as her late ex. As they do so, Rebecca finds out more about herself – including an increasing attraction to Paige.

Lovers of Barbara Vine will adore Smith’s plotting. The story propels itself along, with no twist ever feeling forced or unnatural. While the same can’t necessarily be said of some of the characters. Paige’s backstory, for example, is peppered with unusual and unbelievable cardboard cutouts. These, however, don’t detract from the sense of dramatic urgency.

The ending possibly suffers from being a little easy to guess, but with all great mystery novels it’s how you get there that matters, and ‘The Ropemaker’s Daughter’ takes you on a fantastic ride.

The Sacrifice, by Gordon Linton

Originally written for [ UK](

Anybody who’s grown up gay in a small village will know how important it can suddenly become when you meet someone like you; someone who shares your secret. Greg Chaley, the hero of new novel The Sacrifice, finds out when he meets Kit, in his school choir.

Two years older than he is, the androgynous older boy is immediately aware that Greg is different; not because he’s gay, but because, like himself, he has supernatural abilities. At first, Greg is sceptical. It is only after wishing a dreadful fate on his homophobic music teacher, who subsequently suffers a horrific car crash, that he begins to believe that Kit may have a point and that he really is not like other men.

Gordon Linton’s debut as a novelist follows the path of Greg’s dalliance with black arts through school and on into university. Whenever dark magic is used in fiction, there’s often a strong link with sex (Buffy The Vampire Slayer’s lesbian couple of Tara and Willow, concocting powerful spells together in their bedroom, being just one recent example). It’s the same case here: as Greg’s powers begin to grow, he meets and falls in love with the handsome Phillipe, only to find that their passionate lovemaking is channelling his powers into performing acts of criminal – and fatal – evil.

If the whole premise sounds hokey, it’s redeemed by the absolute seriousness with which it’s taken within the framework of the novel itself. When the plot dips into pure melodrama, the fact that the reader’s own scepticism is echoed by Greg’s own thoughts helps to propel the story onwards.

As the story is moves on to its inevitable climax, Linton for the most part manages to keep on the right side of the line that divides the fantastic from the faintly ridiculous. One of the least believable elements, though, is the manner in which the villain of the piece is despatched. While the method is just about plausible within the framework of the book, the fact that it needs to be explained a few pages later on is maybe a sign that its execution is weaker than it should be.

All in all, The Sacrifice is a satisfying, if at times undemanding, read.

A kiss is just a kiss – or is it?

Suddenly, everybody wants to get into the same-sex kissing market, it seems. Started by the two policemen in the Bill, who gave new meaning to the term “bent coppers”, now the BBC is getting in on the act with a storyline that features in both Casualty and its midweek sister soap, Holby City.

In both hospital dramas, A&E nursing assistant Tony Vincent (Lee Warburton) has been seeing midwife Ben Saunders (David Paisley). The tabloids concocted their usual fury when, as part of this relationship, the pair indulged in a passionate bout of tonsil hockey in the staff room. The Sun, in particular, got all hot under the collar, saying that the BBC had received over 400 complaints. That the extent of the public ire is exaggerated should come as no surprise – a quick call to the BBC press office confirmed that the number of complaints was far smaller. But did the BBC know that the kiss would create such uproar? Were they, in fact, using it for more publicity?

Well, of course they were. After all, there is little dramatic need for a plot straddling both of the channel’s medical dramas; impetus for such an event comes at a basic level from a desire to get viewers of one show watching the other. The idea of a romance between characters is a sound one, since it draws on the viewers’ familiarity with the characters. The choice of two gay men as the focus of such a plot, though, is surprising. Maybe it’s just got something to do with the fact that all the straight doctors and nurses on each show are too busy getting off with each other to look to other wards in the hospital for love? It could be that simple. But other motives may well have lain behind the choice.

Eighteen months ago, “The Bill” was a dull, leaden programme occupying swathes of ITV’s primetime schedule with little award. When incoming producer Paul Marquess took over, though, that began to change. One of the major storylines he introduced involved the series’ first gay officer, Sgt Craig Gilmore, having an affair with a younger PC. A clinch between the two caused a flurry of complaints to the Independent Television Commission (ITC) on the grounds that it was unsuitable and offensive – charges that the ITC rightly threw out.

The ITC’s ruling, though, got masses of column inches in the press, generating useful publicity for a rejuvenated programme whose ratings started to pick up. Is there anyone who doesn’t believe that the BBC would be conscious of the publicity a similar outcry would create for its two hospital dramas? While the Beeb are not regulated by the ITC, producers would know that similar rules would apply.

While the majority of viewers would have no problem, there will always be a vocal minority that rises up in protest whenever gay people are shown expressing genuine affection. So, include a storyline that’s in no danger of being censured by the powers that be but includes gay people, and voila – instant press coverage and lots of free publicity for a show whose audience numbers could do with a boost.

Conservative groups claim that TV producers are constantly pushing the boundaries of what the public deem acceptable, despite research that indicates that a majority of people find nothing wrong with gay relationships on screen (a 1999 poll said that 66% of 16 to 24-year-olds, 70% of 24 to 35-year-olds and 45% of 55 to 64-year-olds found gay scenes acceptable on TV). They may have a point: a recent telephone poll on Channel 4’s teatime magazine show, Richard and Judy, asked people whether a gay couple on the show should end the show by kissing.

Producers say that they received 32,000 calls, with 75% saying that no, they didn’t want to see them kiss. While that’s a disappointing figure in itself, there are plenty of reasons why a result like that may have come about – from the older, more conservative demographic of Richard & Judy’s show, to those who had no problem with the couple kissing not bothering to call in because they didn’t feel strongly enough about it.

But if TV producers really are ahead of general public opinion on the matter of portraying gay relationships honestly, then they’re surely extending their public service remit to their drama programming. The advances of the last fifteen years in terms of public acceptance would never have been made if it weren’t for accurate, sympathetic portrayals of gay, lesbian and bisexual characters living, working and playing alongside their straight colleagues. People are far more accepting of gay people now than they were nearly fifteen years ago, when a chaste peck on the lips between Colin and Guido in EastEnders resulted in a front page denunciation in The Sun (who described it as ‘a homosexual love scene between yuppie poofs… when millions of children were watching’).

Okay, so maybe The Sun hasn’t quite caught up with the rest of us yet…

Originally published on UK (website no longer available)

Diary of a PWA

We have become somewhat inured of late to the phenomenon of newspaper columnists detailing the minutiae of life under the shadow of a terminal illness. The Observer’s Ruth Picardie and The Times’ John Diamond both arguably became more famous as cancer sufferers than they ever had been as the accomplished journalists they already were.

There was a period when a fatally ill columnist was the latest accessory for the newspaper about town, even deserving a satirical sideswipe from Brass Eye creator Chris Morris in his Time To Go column for the Observer.

It’s hard, then, to remember how much Oscar Moore’s columns for the Guardian, PWA (Person with Aids) affected their readers. Moore had been HIV positive for ten years until, on New Year’s Eve 1993, he came down with a severe attack of shingles that was to result in the first of many admissions into hospital. The ups and downs of his condition, his medications and his state of mind were chronicled from 1994 to 1996 with a characteristically frank style that often included a large quantity of dry wit.

Adapted and directed by Malcolm Sutherland, PWA takes Moore’s words and places them in the mouth of actor Pip Torrens, leaving him with just a minimalist set and a couple of slide projectors to accompany his monologue. It’s all that’s needed: anything more, and the impact of his words would be drowned out.

Initially, the slide projectors illuminate the breaks between columns with brief, clinical descriptions of some of the terms used: septicaemia, CMV, EBV, 3TC, Retrovir. As Moore, who as a film critic valued his sight, finds that a virulent strain of herpes called cytomegalovirus is slowly destroying his retina, we also see a blown up image of the viral cell; when in words Moore describes it as ‘the Pac-man of herpes’, chomping away at his vision, the sight of the spherical virus adds an extra layer of poignancy to the rich metaphor.

Any play that you know will end in the main (in this case, only) character’s death always runs the risk of falling into melodrama. Here, there is no chance of that, with Torrens’ superb performance the perfect counterpart to Moore’s writing. The actor holds the audience with him every step of the way, whether it’s as the Oscar who finds wit in minor inconveniences or the bemusement of children, the Oscar who has to deal with excruciating pain and deep depressions, or the Oscar who can no longer hide his anger about the prejudice faced by gay people with Aids. ‘We’re guilty until proven dead,’ he rails at one point, noting how the media always refers to HIV+ haemophiliacs as ‘innocent’.

As the stage version of Oscar nears the end, he turns to the topic of the columns he’s been writing. It’s a weapon, he explains, a means of fighting the virus. After all, while HIV can mutate enough to render medical therapies useless, it hasn’t yet learned how to type. Moore was being modest: not only did his words help him fight his own battle, but they also contributed to the battle against ignorance and homophobia. This superb stage production deserves to continue Oscar Moore’s legacy for some time to come.

* _**Diary of a PWA** was at the Drill Hall, London. This review was written for UK (link no longer available)_

New Boy, Pleasance Theatre, Islington

When adapting any book for the stage, the original writer’s work, more often than not, gets diluted. Not so with New Boy. Director Russell Labey has adapted William Sutcliffe’s first novel faithfully, which unfortunately means that the novel’s flaws are magnified in front of an audience.

Sixth former Mark (Neil Henry) is drawn into a sense of awed fascination when new boy Barry, played by Leon Harris, arrives in school. As their friendship grows, the boys realise they have one big thing in common — their virginity. The main difference, though, is that every woman (and practically every man) wants to relieve Barry of this burden. The closest Mark can get, however, is a drunken fumble at a crass disco.

As Barry explores his newfound sexual prowess, he embarks on a dangerous affair with his French teacher, Mrs. Mumford. Once the affair is exposed (by the teacher herself in a brilliantly comedic and sensuous monologue from Heather Wright) the couple move in together, fuelling Mark’s jealousy – an emotion which goes into overdrive when Barry, close to the play’s conclusion, embarks on another affair even closer to home.

Throughout, Neil Henry’s Mark is a fabulous concoction of adolescent angst. Whilst his narrative monologues are occasionally gratingly overwritten, Henry’s delivery and acute sense of comic timing make the show. The audience is completely drawn in by him and, like his character, becomes tantalised by the best friend that he sees. Sadly, unlike the fictional Mark, we can see Barry/Leon Parris’ faults all too plainly: of the otherwise impressive cast of five, his is the weakest performance by far.

The relationship between these two young men is the driving force behind the book and the play. A shame, then, that it is not as fulfilling or convincing as it should be. This is due, in part, to inherent weaknesses in the source material, but responsibility lies also in Labey’s adaptation. In the play’s closing stages Mark is berated by his friends for being blind to the situation unfolding around him. However, the subtle clues in Sutcliffe’s book have been omitted, leaving the audience as much in the dark as Mark. While on the page we can recognise a young man whose introspection renders him blind and deserving of the name-calling he receives, on stage we are as confused as he is when new relationships surface out of nowhere.

Despite this criticism, the cast generally engages the audience well, with able support from Josh Neale and Clare Buckfield. In the main, the script varies from the witty to the hilarious, albeit with a convincing undercurrent of pathos. Quite why it was deemed necessary to shoehorn in so many late 80’s disco numbers to unsuccessfully create a sense of period remains a mystery. The character observations and the comments on schoolroom attitudes towards sex and homosexuality, surely, are as relevant in a truly contemporary setting, if not more so.

In short, Mr. and Mrs. Labey, your son Russell has produced a competent and not unenjoyable comic drama that fails to achieve the predicted grade. B-: could do better.

* Originally written for UK (no longer online)