Writer: Arran Bell
When a young performing arts graduate puts on their own cabaret show, it runs the risk of coming across as, well, a little insipid. There’s often not much in the way of personal life experience to draw upon, and for queer performers, there’s maybe a desire to tone down the explicitness of their awakening into adulthood.
No such qualms befall Arran Bell, whose tales of losing his virginity and more, lots more, are summed up as “stories that should never be shared at the dinner table”. To prove the point, his cabaret show The Unimportance of Being Gay starts with a filthily rewritten version of The Trolley Song, reworded to describe a night of boisterous sex, in which the line “Clang, clang, clang went the headboard” is the only lyric that doesn’t need its own 18 certificate.
Bell recounts tales of losing his virginity while a performing arts student in Guildford, the town where he still lives, and proceeds to detail some of his sexual encounters, setting some to music. And so we get some numbers played straight (apart from the kinks originally present) such as Touch Me from The Rocky Horror Show, and more adaptations as Gracie Fields’s The Biggest Aspidistra in the World is reworked as The Biggest Purple Dildo.
While the guilt-free, shameless depiction of a hyperactive sex life is refreshing, Bell’s tale of a threesome with two athletic circus gymnasts where he started to feel left out introduces a hint of something deeper, something emotionally meatier. Initially, this is brushed aside for more levity, with Bell (backed up by Kara-Lianne Jones and Elli Hosier on vocals, and musical director Flynn Sturgeon on piano and accordion) opting instead for more late-night lewd humour.
But as the second half progresses, there are signs of a greater story trying to force its way into Bell’s evening. After a brief but hilarious bout of flirting with an audience member, Bell relates tales of running for the last train back to Guildford only to find that an ex from his home town of Sunderland is the driver. The initial reunion (punctuated by a rendition of “Shaganooga [sic] Choo Choo”) is followed up by how Bell received a wedding invitation from the driver and his new partner.
The sense that other people’s lives are beginning to move on from the hedonism of youth grows as Bell reveals that a year ago, he met someone who made him reconsider his antipathy towards monogamy. Although that relationship didn’t last, the song Bell wrote about the man who turned his head is beautiful. Taking over piano playing while Sturgeon accompanies on tin whistle, Bell’s rendition of My Blue-Eyed Belfast Boy shows that there are emotional depths alongside the crudeness in this young performer’s mind.
It is a shame that the conflict between the all-out sluttiness of youth and the wallop when someone who might be The One makes themselves known is limited to just one song. For it feels as if that is the story that Bell really wants to tell, if he can let himself be open to it.
Reviewed on 28 May 2022