The afterlife is a strange and prickly subject, let alone one in which to extol the virtues of and explore the social issues surrounding lesbianism. But Maureen Chadwick’s new play does just that, but with a wicked sense of humour and an imagination that’s out of this world.
Somewhere in the ether, Queenie stumbles into a spectral vision of The Gateways Club; the underground Chelsea lesbian bar made famous in the film The Killing of Sister George. There, she bumps into Ollie. Knowing they’re both dead, Ollie believes that they’ve gone to “dyke heaven”. But the staunchly religious Queenie believes that this is purgatory where her faith and resolve will be tested. But then old flame Shirley stumbles in, and Queenie is forced to face her past, questioning the choices she’s made and having to come to terms with who she is.
Strangely, Chadwick doesn’t really bring much new to the table in terms of exposing home truths, grappling with internalised homophobia, coping with societal marginalisation, rank genderism, and the damaging effect of savage faith. There are a few unexpected and interesting angles, but ultimately everything is pretty standard fare for those already versed in LGBT issues. The narrative also includes an incredibly contrived and shoe-horned sequence, that makes up the majority of the second act, regarding choosing between who we are, and who we want to be. Furthermore, Queenie’s epiphanic turn-around seems little bit sudden and unconvincing, for the sake of purely moving onto the next plot point.
Some of the lines are also incredibly stilted. It’s clear that Chadwick is trying to appeal to a broader audience than purely the LGBT community, creating something more than a piece of niche gay female theatre: an incredibly bold and worthwhile approach. But alas, this means spelling out all of the key concepts behind the issues she’s exploring and many of the references, which disrupts any natural feel to the dialogue.
However, Chadwick’s construction of the play, and director Simon Evans’ presentation, is superb. The iron grip on some excellent pacing launches you back and forth between comedy and tragedy at break-neck speeds, leaving you panting and exhausted at points. Even if the points of view are a little garden variety, your heart will ache just as much as your sides. Ollie, the cynical and sarcastic third wheel, has all the best lines, plopping them perfectly into both moments of darkness and of light. They are rip-roaringly funny, enhancing or contrasting any given moment with deft results. These are beautifully juxtaposed with some tender moments from Queenie and Shirley as they try to reconcile their past and identities in this surreal eternity.
Theatrical veterans Polly Hemingway and Amanda Boxer, as Queenie and Ollie respectively, really shine in this piece, and not just because of Hemingway’s lovely sequin dress. But Boxer really pulls out all the stops in her performance. She effortlessly balances Ollie’s long suffering dry wit against the more vulnerable aspect of her character that she herself is trying to forget. Her comic delivery is also impeccable. However, it’s a shame that starlet Mia Mackie, as Shirley, seems a little stiff in comparison, especially as she seems to be lumped with some of the more awkward lines. You get the sense that she’s always on the cusp of coming into her own, but can never quite get there.
But the coup de grace is the narrative frame itself. This afterlife ruled over by the enigmatic “powers that be” manipulate and toy with the characters in this half-way house, adding not only a wild sense of unpredictability, but also some wonderfully constructed comedic situations. Right up until the last bell, you’re actually never entirely sure what’s going on, or how it will all end, keeping you just as rapt as the moments of hilarity and touching drama.
Ed Lewis’ sound design also greatly enhances the play. Pristine and well executed, whether it’s the deafening rumble of thunder from the elusive deities that rule over the bar, the light thud of remembered rain, or the gentle Dusty Springfield numbers emanating from the jukebox with a mind of its own, it’s all remarkable.
Andrew Edwards’ set also makes fantastic use of the Riverside Studio Studio 3’s infamously shallow and wide space, using columns and Johanna Town’s lighting design to give an effect of hidden depth. And whilst it doesn’t look anything like The Gateways Club itself, it certainly evokes it.
For all the faults that you could pick with certain aspects of the script, it all comes together to be a marvellous whiplash of a show. It’s also great to see a piece of lesbian theatre being so lovingly and slickly produced, let alone a piece of new lesbian writing, when there’s woefully too little of it on the theatre scene compared to gay plays.
But even when you take away its homosexual themes, you’re still left with a heady and breathtaking ballad to life and love.
The Speed Twins plays at the Riverside Studios, London, W6 9RL, until 28 September 2013. Tickets are £22.50 (concessions available). To book, visit www.riversidestudios.co.uk.