Review: Love Song to Lavender Menace – Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh

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First published in The Times, Friday October 21 2017

Three Stars

This two-hander from James Ley, the Edinburgh-based playwright and founder of the Village Pub Theatre, is a rare treat. One could count on the fingers of one hand the number of new plays that open in Scotland in any given year whose running time is more than 50 minutes. As for drama in which LGBT characters are at the front and centre of the story, well, you wouldn’t even need to use one hand or, for that matter, any of your fingers.

There is so much to like in Ros Philips’s production, staged in the Lyceum’s studio, that you almost forgive its flaws. The play (the fruits of an LGBT History Month Scotland Cultural Commission) is set among the shelves of a lesbian, gay and feminist bookshop, inspired by a real-life venture run by Sigrid Nilson and Bob Orr out of a basement on Forth Street from 1982-1987.

16.(L-R) Matthew McVarish and Pierce Reid. Photo credit - Aly Wight

Pic: Aly Wright

The action takes place on the eve of closure, the shop having succumbed to the Waterstone’s juggernaut, which, ironically enough, is coming to rest on the site of Fire Island, the city’s first gay nightclub. Sales assistants Lewis (Pierce Reid) and Glen (Matthew McVarish) have been charged with packing up the stock and turning out the lights. Before that happens, though, there’s just time for the pair to practise their theatrical homage to the shop’s founders as well as reminiscing about their favourite encounters over the past five years and re-enacting episodes from queer literary and political landmarks.

 

Ley’s script is inclusive and witty and paints a vivid portrait of the strides made in gay activism during a period in which homosexuality emerged from the closet in Scotland only to beat a retreat as Section 28, which forbade councils from “intentionally promoting homosexuality”, hove into view at the end of the decade. Philips’s production, which features a soundtrack of anthems from the era, also provides a showcase for two fine actors. Reid is a particularly versatile talent, shifting effortlessly among a number of roles and scenarios.

3.(L-R) Matthew McVarish and Pierce Reid in Love Song to Lavender Menace. Photo credit - Aly Wight

Pic: Aly Wright

Indeed, the play is so dense in historical detail that all the research occasionally threatens to eclipse the drama of the shop’s closure and Ley’s ideas about activism and the consequences of queer culture becoming assimilated into the mainstream. A few judicious edits wouldn’t have gone amiss, not least the gimmicky sequence featuring a literary special guest, who appears, script-in-hand, having time-travelled from 30 years hence.

 

A few rough edges aside, the production itself is fun, endearingly performed and moving enough to make you long for your own time machine with the coordinates set for 1987 and a glimpse of the original Lavender Menace.

 

Box office: 0131 248 4848, to October 21. Touring to October 29

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