Queer Upstairs, Royal Court


By Gregory Forrest

‘Stonewall was a riot, not a rainbow’ says the placard on my newsfeed.

Fifty years on from that night, riots which poured gasoline onto the gay rights movement, these six short plays in the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs is a sign of how far we have come, and how far we have left to go.

Curated by Hester Chillingworth and Mark Ravenhill, the Queer Upstairs staged readings celebrate queerness as a theatrical live-wire; and why not? If queerness is an act of revolution – of always (r)evolving – then theatre is surely its natural home. Anything can and does happen onstage. Norms can be rewritten and the ‘rules’ are up for grabs.

Writers Lettie Precious, Rebecca Prichard, Iman Qureshi, Nick Bruckman, Rachael Young, and Hester Chillingworth relish in these possibilities. Tackling identity, history, family, and technology, they suck out the marrow of what it means to be queer in 2019 (and often spit it back out).

Stones does the seemingly impossible, building towards an image of two queer men being pelted by stones in a way that does not feel depressing. Artificial Intelligence resembles Siri and Alexa hooking up to host a chemsex party: the verbal fireworks explode and keep on exploding. This same sense of playful repetition is shared by The Grey Area, which unpacks privilege like it is both a broken record and a rubix cube. Equally challenging, Bury Her exists in the crawl space between humour and horror; Raven arrives with equal parts wit and rage; and When the Water Comes slowly floods the theatre with words you left unspoken.

The diversity of voices on display is a testament to the origins of Pride. So-called ‘queer’ theatre often focuses on white gay male experience, adopting the same the homo-normative biases that plague the LGBTQ+ community. In contrast, the ability of these six writers to think and create intersectionally is fully on display. For queer culture to progress, these are the kind of creative impulses that should be celebrated and developed.

That is the final irony of Queer Upstairs. Its aim to bring queer stories by queer writers into focus is achieved, but only to a modest audience on a Monday night. It achieves and fails. With only half a century between them, a dingy New York bar feels little different in scale or potential to a musky theatre in London. Both sites for potential revolution. Or just a pint and a show.

Thankfully, queerness welcomes contradiction: we reject labels and rely on them; we dissolve gender and divide it; we can be equal parts grateful that queer writers are being nurtured in this way, and frustrated that their work is not packing theatres year-round to standing ovations. We can be both greedy and satiated; on the margins and centre-page; in the wings and centre-stage. In the words of Prince, ‘Maybe I’m just too demanding’. Why can’t we be a riot and a rainbow?

Queer Upstairs was a one-off event on 17 June in London.

The Play’s the Thing UK is committed to covering fringe and progressive theatre in London and beyond. It is run entirely voluntarily and needs regular support to ensure its survival. For more information and to help The Play’s the Thing UK provide coverage of the theatre that needs reviews the most, visit its patreon.

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