Pros: Enjoyable moments of humour, brought alive by an array of characters and satisfying performances.
Cons: Some overly gratuitous playing of emotion at times, which runs the risk of distancing the audience.
This play is likely to strike a chord for anybody raised under the constraints and didactic teachings of religion, particularly for – although not reduced to – members of the LGBT community; I am one of those people. Having attended Catholic schools until I was 18, it was easy for me to identify with the central characters of Del Shores’ play, an endeavour of religion, sanctioned homophobia, love and coming of age.
The work explores the attitudes of the Southern Baptist Church towards homosexuality and the impact of the Church’s doctrine on its young flock. Its narrative follows the struggles and challenges faced by four gay males and their journey towards self-recognition, despite the archaic teachings of their religion. The action is humorously knitted together by two old soaks, Odette (Julie Ross) and Preston (Don Cotter), who spend their time commentating on their perspectives of life in seedy gay bar Cocktails and Dreams.
The multifunctional set designed by David Shields effortlessly places the action in several locations while managing to place the religious theme firmly at the root of the production. His concept goes some way in creating a feeling in the audience of being positioned inside a religious meeting house; as always at The Stag, the set makes the most of the studio’s intimate stage space.
The performances are engaging and emotive, if not a tad too theatrical at times. There are moments in the story where director Gene David Kirk needed to reign things in. Less can offer more. The intimacy of the space would lend itself to a more internal approach of the playing of emotion as opposed to some of the over gesticulated and heightened demonstrations. Having said this, the audience – mostly consisting of gay men – relished in moments of soap opera, flipping them between gregarious laughter and heartfelt tears; much of the audience stood to offer a standing ovation during the curtain call.
James Phoon as Benny and his drag alter-ego, Iona, is splendid. It was impossible not to watch him during singing sequences, both as a young and sparkling Benny in the church choir and as Iona, commanding the stage as a sassy drag queen in Cocktails and Dreams. There’s effective multi-rolling offered by Janet Prince who demonstrates her versatility, carrying out the roles of the different mothers of each of the boys. The ensemble of nine is a strong cast, each offering performances worth the ticket.
In the past, Above the Stag has had mixed reviews from me. Yet, the more I visit the more I realise what a special place this is. There is a community here, one that comes together to support the work of the theatre. I find it difficult to offer a star rating. With a critical eye, yes there are aspects to this production that could be developed further. However, with a competent cast, thankful audience and such warm sense of community, Southern Baptist Sissies is a great night out for the theatre’s target audience.
Author: Del Shores
Director: Gene David Kirk
Musical Director: Patrick Stockbridge
Choreographer: Anthony Whiteman
Set & Costume Designer: David Shields
Lighting Designer: Chris Withers
Producer: Peter Bull
Booking link: http://www.abovethestag.com/shows/
Booking Until: 9 April 2017