Greenside @ Infirmary Street – Olive Studio
No, this is not a pretty little detached building in the country that you might wistfully dream of retiring to one day, when your big city life of ‘work and earn’ is through. Ivy around the windows, ancient slate tiles still just about clinging to the roof? No. The cottage we’re dealing with here is the generic term for the very specific habit of gay men meeting in public toilets in order take part in anonymous sex with strangers.
Back in the Bad Old Days when gayness was illegal, sex with strangers in toilets was one of the precious few outlets available for men of this persuasion to vent their natural urges. We’ve moved on from prosecuting queers now, and yet the practice of cottaging (you know you’ve made it when you become a verb) still goes on. Why? Cottage sets out to explore “one of the most shameful yet thrilling parts of queer history”. According to the blurb.
Steven (Ben Lewis), a mature gent, appears first in a toilet paper-strewn lav. The set is two bogs with a partition between them: efficient and effective. When much younger Adam (Stephen Ledger) arrives and takes the neighbouring cubicle, Steven nervously taps his foot under the partition, and an encounter begins. Both are in the “cottage” for the same thing, but for very different reasons: a disparity that is unpicked over the course of this intelligent and sensitive play.
The performances do Ben Willows’ sophisticated script proud. As Steven, Lewis takes on a role much older than his age, but does so excellently: he brilliantly inhabits the physicality and psyche of the middle-aged, married teacher, mixing in a strong strain of anxiety, which reminded me of the manic nervousness of Lee Evans. Ledger as Adam makes a very effective foil, projecting the confidence of a young twink but skilfully edging his performance with an intriguing vulnerability, which we grow to understand when the backstory of Adam’s relationship with his parents is revealed.
The late arrival of a third character tilts the narrative into melodrama, but the play remains engaging, and the ending is emotional and affecting.
While there are many admirable elements to this production, I did wonder if it was really addressing the question it asked: why do gay men today still seek out these dingy public places to have sex? The play’s characters are believable and have convincing reasons to be there, but there’s little interrogation of just why this particular sort of cottage still attracts this age-old trade in sexual interaction now that they are legal.
[Note: this review suggests the play is set in modern day. The writer has since advised that it was set in an unspecified time but one where homosexuality was still a criminal offence, and that there are references to this within the play. We are happy to clarify this point on behalf of the writer]
Written by: Ben Willows
Directed by: Maddie Hurley
Produced by: Sightline Productions
Cottage played as part of Edfringe 2022