Pro’s: Totally watchable and infectiously impassioned – a real eye-opener that should be taught to GCSE or A-Level students.
Con’s: Some more bizarre elements fall flat; technical changes can be slow.
“You may find these things morally wrong. I do not.” These are the brave words of a 17-year-old boy, Geoffrey Patrick Williamson, whilst being questioned for propositioning a plain-clothes railway policeman on an Exeter to Bristol train in 1954. At the time, homosexuality was illegal – something many of us can’t fathom in today’s liberal British society, until you bear in mind that being gay is still a crime in many countries around the world. During his interrogation, Williamson listed the names of men he’d had sex with; all were brought to trial at Taunton Assizes Court, leading to nine prison sentences and several other life-changing punishments. Most of the men’s families had no idea they were gay, as they’d had to painstakingly conceal it.
Tom Marshman has brought this fascinating and emotive case to light in the most painfully appropriate setting: a former police station in central Bristol, where the cells now hold a temporary exhibition to accompany A Haunted Existence, by Marshman, historical researcher Jeanie Sinclair, and producer Jo Kimber. Newspaper clippings, statistics, and mind-boggling information on the trauma of aversion therapy (thought to ‘cure’ people of being gay) make for a powerful primer before the play begins and Marshman throws us into Williamson’s world before and after the fateful train journey, as well as Marshman’s detective work to uncover the story. With cinemas currently showing The Miseducation of Cameron Post, about a lesbian teenager sent to a conversion therapy camp, this play has extra resonance. Marshman’s recurring line about the list of men – “They were in it together. They were in it alone,” speaks to the isolation many gay people felt, and the unity that today’s gay rights movement champions to emphasise no gay person should feel alone.
The exhibition also prepares you for the play’s multimedia approach, as it jumps from records playing to intricate films and projections (by Paul Samuel White and Leon Trimble), sound clips, songs and more. Most of this is highly effective, including a Polari (gay slang) alphabet; less successful are the sections where Marshman does a headstand at the back of the stage whilst projections or music overlap. He also talks about trying to glean details of Williamson’s partners through a medium, which might raise scepticism in some audience members.
Overall, this is a play you cannot and should not ignore. It restores dignity to the thousands of men imprisoned or questioned in 1954 for being gay, and those before and after them, who were encouraged to believe their sexual identity was sinful or wrong. Williamson, through Marshman, has proved there is nothing wrong about who you’re drawn to.
Author: Tom Marshman
Producer: Jo Kimber
Box Office: 01179 275100
Booking Link: https://www.watershed.co.uk/whatson/9124/a-haunted-existence-by-tom-marshman
Booking Until: 23rd September 2018