In a regular series The Reviews Hub’s Richard Maguire looks at some of the LGBTQ+ shows that feature in The VAULT Festival 2020. This week he speaks to the creatives behind three shows opening in Week Two of London’s biggest fringe event: When The Sea Swallows Us Whole, Be Longing, and Since U Been Gone
When The Sea Swallows Us Whole is a queer love story set somewhere on the East Coast of England. The cliffs are falling into the sea, and the townspeople blame each other for the disappearance of land and houses as the coast erodes. Mila is trapped in a small town that is on the edge of extinction, but her life changes when another woman, Posy, arrives to pack up her grandmother’s things before her house is lost to the ocean.
Natasha Collie’s play is the debut for BTS productions and Bertie Taylor-Smith has managed to garner quite some talent. Playing the two women are Charlotte O”Leary who works with theatre company Paines Plough and Jacoba Williams who recently wowed the critics with her one-woman show Before I Was A Bear at the Bunker Theatre. Williams is no stranger to the VAULT Festival and was in last year’s hit show Queens of Sheba, a powerful presentation of what it means to be a black woman in today’s London.
When Taylor-Smith set up a New Writing evening to select a play to produce, the judges were all surprised to find that each had chosen a play by Collie. In When The Sea Swallows Us Whole, there is also thought to the climate emergency threatening the Earth, and the play is set on a beach scattered with debris. It will seem quite at home in the VAULT’s newest space, the Forge’s theatre- in-the-round.
Also playing in the Forge, and also set in a world affected by global warming, is Be Longing, which imagines a world without men. In a dystopian future where fertility rates are low, scientists find a new way of reproducing where there is no need for sperm, and one scientist Jim (a woman) asks her partner (also a woman) if they want to give it a try. It would suggest that the dystopian future is also a queer one.
Of course, there are protests when the scientists announce their discovery: these protesters have slogans such as ‘The Queers are Here. The End is Near.’ Producer Caro Tyka explains that the idea behind this story may not be as far-fetched as it sounds as sperm is only the carrier of genetic information, not the information itself. If other ways could be found to extract that genetic information then conception as we know it may be very different in the future. But if we can make the babies we like can we also get rid of those babies we don’t like?
Tyka is excited for Be Longing to be playing in the Forge as the in-the-round set up will perfectly represent the womb which is, of course, at the centre of this play by New Zealander Lauren Gibson, who also plays the part of Sigrid, Jim’s partner. Excitingly, the whole cast and crew of this production are women, or womxn as Tyka indicates, implying that certain limitations of the binary man/woman have been revised. Indeed woman suggests that woman is of man, but Be Longing suggests otherwise.
Teddy Lamb from Since U Been Gone, also escapes binaries and is a non-binary performer choosing the pronoun of ‘they’. Pronouns feature prominently in Lamb’s solo show in which they write letters to two dead friends. One was killed in a car crash while the other lost her battle with depression, and both died before Lamb was able to completely come out as non-binary. Growing up in the 90s meant that there were no non-binary and very few trans people represented positively in the media. And all were played by Cis actors. Lamb was inspired by the queer plays of Philip Ridley, but was disappointed with the scarcity of queer characters within them.
Indeed, rather than waiting for things to change, Lamb has been instrumental in making theatre a safer space for queer people. Each first Monday of the month, Lamb hosts the Theatre Queer Meet Up at Soho Theatre welcoming any queer people involved in the theatre, those on stage and those behind it, from actors to ushers, and even, Lamb adds, critics!. They also mention Trans Voices Cabaret, regularly taking place at The Other Palace, where trans and non-binary performers can sing, which creates more visibility for trans people, who are considerably underrepresented in London’s West End.
Hopefully, trans rights are moving in the right direction, and Lamb’s Since U Been Gone, named after a song by Kelly Clarkson, underlines this optimism for the future. The show was a hit in Edinburgh last summer, and although it deals with tough subject matter, Lamb believes that its universal themes will talk to both trans and Cis people alike. It also has a banging noughties-inspired soundtrack by Nicole Parkinson, which also includes some samples of Clarkson and The Backstreet Boys.
All three shows point to the future in some way, and this exploration of how we live now and, importantly, on how we could live, is what makes The VAULT Festival such a vital event in theatre’s calendar.
When The Sea Swallows Us While runs until 9 February 2020
Be Longing runs until 8 February 2020
Since U Been Gone runs until 9 February 2020
The VAULT Festival runs until 22 March 2020