Week 7 brings even more varied genres to the LGBTQ+ shows being shown at the VAULT Festival this year: a trans man’s struggle to learn masculinity, a Riot Grrrl musical and a revival of a play set in the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s. Richard Maguire spoke to the creatives behind The Ultimate Lad, Sugar Coat and Safe Sex.
The Ultimate Lad charts trans man Ash Palmisciano’s struggle with masculinity. After his transition, Ash initially found it difficult to learn how to act as a man; even though he presented as a man – indeed is a man- he wasn’t always sure how to perform his gender. He was surprised to discover that men don’t touch or compliment each other in the same way as women do. Ash found that men don’t get as enthusiastic about things as women do. He also had to learn that you don’t walk too closely behind a woman on an empty street at night time. No organisation offered him training on how to be a man. And there are no manuals to help.
Ash’s play – a heightened autobiography – sees him ask for advice from a friend Jay, who gives him lessons not just in manliness, but in ladishness. To be a lad is often frowned upon now and, as last week’s brilliant and similarly titled Lad demonstrated, this boisterous young man is often linked to toxic masculinity. Of course, Ash acknowledges this, but he also wants to recover the positive values of being a man such as healthy competitiveness and comradeship, attributes that the PappyShow explored in the dance piece Boys, shown at VAULT in 2018 and which occasionally still tours.
Ash is a familiar face for soap fans as he plays Emmerdale’s first trans character Matty. At first, Ash was just called in to help with the development of the character but the producers then suggested that he audition for the role. Even though his TV career has taken off, Ash still wants to give theatre a go and has teamed up with director Jon Brittain, whose show, Baby Reindeer, with comedian Richard Gadd is just about to transfer to the West End. Brittain is no stranger to VAULT and last week directed another one-man show, Sequins and Lies. With such support it sounds promising for Ash’s one-lad show.
Also with a talented team behind them is Sugar Coat, a show about a punk rock Riot Grrrl band of the same name. It’s being produced by the same crew that brought us the superlative Bobby and Amy last year, and is co-written by Joel Samuels, another VAULT veteran. Together with co-writer Lilly Pollard they have come up with a show that charts the sexual awakening of a woman who finds peace in a non-monogamous and polyandrous relationship.
Lilly also wrote all the songs and she admits that she wasn’t too acquainted with the sound of Riot Grrrl, an America form of punk, big in the 1990s. Unapologetically feminist and inspired by Britain’s own female fronted bands of the 70s, The Slits and X-Ray Specs, Riot Grrrrl’s most famous group is Bikini Kill. Lilly found herself exploring their back catalogue along with that of female-led grunge band Veruca Salt. She hopes that her songs will do Riot Grrrl justice.
Sugar Coat plays at the perfect time of 7.30pm, and is being show in the Forge, the VAULT Festival’s mini-amphitheatre. Lilly hopes that this format will allow the music to be loud with being so deafening that it scares off punters. But Sugar Coat is not just a gig, there is a story too, and band members take turns to play characters that our hero meets along her journey. Lilly promises it will be a blast.
Finishing our penultimate roundup of the VAULT Festival 2020 is Safe Sex, the Network Theatre Company’s revival of Harvey Fierstein’s play written at the height of the AIDS epidemic in 1987. Fierstein, who was already famous for Torch Song Trilogy, ironically calls Safe Sex a comedy, because nobody dies in it. It’s unusual to see old plays at the festival as the majority of shows presented feature new writing. But producer Sue Small says that the play is important, as it is able to connect the older gay community to the younger gay community.
Many of the younger generation are unaware of how bad the 80s were for the gay population. In Britain Margaret Thatcher took advantage of the fear of AIDS and brought in her homophobic Clause 28, an act that prohibited the promotion of homosexuality and banned schools from discussing LGBTQ+ issues. Her government also came up with the contentious safe sex campaign, Don’t Die of Ignorance.
As they were preparing for their roles Samuel Neal and George White watched the government campaign and were shocked to see what the world was like then for queer people. It was very different from what it is now with the legalisation of gay marriage and LGBTQ+ relationship lessons soon to be mandatory in all primary schools. Other recent plays such as The Inheritance have also sought to bring the generations together and which hope to suggest that each generation can learn from each other.
So if you are interested in knowing how we lived in the past and how we live today VAULT is the best place to be this week. It sounds like it’ll be a riot, girl!
The Ultimate Lad runs from 13-15 March 2020
Sugar Coat runs from 10-15 March 2020
Safe Sex runs from 10-15 March 2020