Writer: Laura Lees
Director: James Baker
It’s the early 1980s, when being gay was pretty scary; not just on a personal level, but out on the streets, in the pubs, on the building sites, and in the family home. Barely a decade and a half earlier, homosexuality was illegal, and many miscarriages of justice merited just a couple of lines in the local rag. Who cared? In 1969, a much overdue change in the law saw clubs springing up all over Britain, offering a relatively safe haven to those that society had previously outlawed. Yet, attending these places still required a great deal of bravery and a desire to be oneself. Liverpool’s Masquerade club was one such haven. Laura Lees‘s first full-length stage play explores how vital such places were, what they had to endure, and the many characters that populated them.
The story opens in, what one assumes is, present day. Middle-aged Mike (Neil Macdonald) is sitting with his young niece, and reminiscing about the ‘good old days’. Whilst the familiar dark synths of Depeche Mode play, there is an endearing clash of contrasting generations, as Mike confesses that he was once a well-known local DJ, and even made the pages of the NME. Or was it Smash Hits?
Rewind to the early 80s, and we find young Mike (Jamie Peacock) eking out a mind-numbing existence punching tickets at a local fleapit, and finding solace in VHS copies of Casablanca and Brief Encounter. Mike is a shy, sensitive young lad, constantly berated by his rough diamond of a dad to get a ‘proper job’ down on the building site, and get along to the footie. Mike’s best mate, Tony (an exhaustingly energetic Joe Owen) encourages him to pop along to the Masquerade and, before you know it we’re having drag queen Judy belting out a few well-worn anthems and getting the enthusiastic audience to clap along. Michael Bailey brings Judy to life in the most outrageous way, all suggestive moves, winks, and scratching of intimate areas.
The first half introduces us to a variety of (mostly) likeable, larger-than-life characters, including debonair club owner Frank (Neil Macdonald again, channelling Derek Acorah via Paul O’Grady), alcoholic barmaid Norma (a scene-stealing Catherine Rice), and a motley group of rough and ready regulars. The show rattles along, and the audience are with it all the way. It’s jolly, a bit naughty, cheeky, and thoroughly enjoyable, but where’s the meat (as one character suggestively asks)? Hearing John Hurt’s iconic vocals narrating the chilling AIDS advert from the 80s certainly puts a dampener on things. We are reminded that all the hedonism and burgeoning of hitherto repressed emotion is now squashed beneath an almighty hand of righteousness. It’s a chilling end to the first half, and a reminder of the harsh realities we are being invited to look back upon.
Following an interval where the audience are offered sandwiches (at least on press night) from a bewildering variety of drag queens in The Epstein bar, the crowd are well warmed up for the second half. Now, surely, we can guess where this is all heading. We’ve all seen the recent Russell T Davies tv drama It’s A Sin, but it’s all about the execution, isn’t it? Balancing the laughs with the horror.
There is a tremendously effective opening to the second half, as the Masquerade club and its regulars are met with horrifying scenes while Simple Minds’ classic Don’t You Forget About Me rings out – which then moves into one of the shows most poignant, powerful and heart-wrenching moments. There is no mistaking that the “dark” days are still here and the characters gradually succumb to overwhelming physical and emotional pressures… it is a time to retreat to the shadows, try to fit in, be ‘normal, and become ‘Stuart’ again… But, Stuart loves Mike.
On press night there was a lovely moment when the ever-resilient Frank, sweeping up the debris, refusing to give in, and waved away a rebellious plastic glass that rolled away to the edge of the stage. This was a wonderful bit of synchronicity, underscoring Frank’s character, and the themes of the play. One of those moments that would be virtually impossible to recreate. A good omen.
Producer Bill Elms along side Director James Baker have cast this show well, and have introduced us to a supremely talented ensemble, teaming experienced performers with recent graduates. Jamie Peacock is simply superb as the lovelorn Mike and is paired beautifully with Michael Bailey’s Stuart/Judy. Their love is at the heart of Masquerade, and the simple desire to be oneself. Director, Baker successfully juggles a great many balls (or spins a great many plates; take your pick) and contrasts some extravagant musical scenes with the subtlest of character interactions.
It’s the eternal, classic love story, no matter what the masks. No matter.
Runs until 26 Nov 2022