As you traipse down the stairs to find a seat, the stage in Pleasance Two seems to be set for a kind of Eighties cabaret act. Lulu (Milo Twomey), a drag queen, is made up but not yet dressed for the part, though her pianist, Hew (Jay Taylor), is already seated at his electric keyboard in a spangly jacket that catches the light. But Hew and Lulu are an act like no other. They are father and son.
At first, Taylor seems to be there only to assist Twomey in his central performance, helping Lulu to dress, filling in voices and sounds as she tells us her life story, beginning with the moment of her birth. But as the play continues, Hew enters the proceedings in his own right, and I ♥ Peterborough becomes something truly spectacular.
Lulu’s real name is Michael and he is a man who has grown up gay in Peterborough, a bleak little town in the east of England with, Michael tells us, more cul-de-sacs than any other city in the world. It is quite literally a dead-end town, but Michael shows no great desire to escape. He works dead-end jobs, goes out, lives in the house where he lived with his own father until his death – and then Hew arrives, the result of Michael’s awkward, emotionally-charged teenage fumble with a slightly mad childhood friend. Stephanie brought Hew up alone for fifteen years before dying in accident and now he has come to stay.
Upon being told that that I ♥ Peterborough is about the relationship between a gay drag act and the son he has only just met, I thought I could foresee what was coming: a rather worthy hour about two men not understanding each other’s perspectives, a son struggling to deal with his father’s sexuality and so on. But Joel Horwood has written and directed something that is so much more beautiful and complex than that. Hew and Lulu’s relationship is not antagonistic, not based around a failure to communicate; they understand each other better than anyone else in the world ever could. This is the problem. The relationship they form is so co-dependent that it is difficult for Hew to grow outside of it, and as much as they love each other they cannot control one another, and let each other down.
I ♥ Peterborough may well be the most moving play I have seen at the Fringe. This is not because it takes itself particularly seriously – everything about it is done with great humour – but rather because the relationship between the two central characters is so sensitively drawn and so wonderfully acted. Twomey and Taylor’s performances are remarkable, funny, clever and sad, with a truly impressive depth of understanding that leaves you really believing in these characters.
Eastern Angles have something genuinely very special on their hands here and it is not surprising to hear that it will be embarking on a tour after the Fringe ends. I ♥ Peterborough is a play that will stay in your mind long after you have left the theatre.
***** – 5/5 stars
I ♥ Peterborough is playing at Pleasance Courtyard as part of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival until 27 August. For more information and tickets, see the Edinburgh Fringe website.