On 27th July 1967, the passing of the Sexual Offences Act – which decriminalised private homosexual acts between men over 21 in England and Wales, was passed. Fifty years on and the UK is reflecting on how far we’ve come and yet how far we still have to go regarding LGBT+ rights. The theatre world is embracing this important event and the dialogue that it generates and, to mark the occasion an array of LGBT+ theatre is being staged across the country.
Off-Broadway production, YANK! made its UK debut in Manchester back in March and has made its London transfer to Charing Cross Theatre. YANK! is the only gay musical that will be staged in London during Pride, following acclaim from its Northern run. The story of Mitch and Stu (played by Andy Coxon and Scott Hunter, respectively) has captivated audiences and encouraged them to see love beyond the heterosexual. Based on a true story of US gay soldiers during World War, this compelling musical draws on the oral histories in Allan Bérubé’s book Coming Out Under Fire. This is a piece of theatre that offers us a genuine look into what it was like to be a gay serviceman in the 1940s.
When asked about what audience members could take away from Stu and Mitch’s relationship, Scott Hunter who plays young writer Stu, said that he hoped audience’s would take away ‘ the fight and the bravery’ required to be openly LGBT+ back then. He feels that people ‘should be able to understand the struggle’ but stressed that this is not about pity. Andy Coxon who plays Mitch added that the relationship ‘honours what happened during those times’ and teaches us what LGBT+ people had to experience back then. He also provided a reflection on a message that he had been sent by an older gay couple who had seen a preview of the show: they’d reiterated Andy’s thoughts of how ‘the storyline honoured what happened then’ and highlighted that it had not felt ‘forced or fake’. The latter is of course of great importance as to avoid creating a world on stage which conveys stereotypical representations of LGBT+ people. Andy stressed that he feels that (the cast) have ‘really found the heart of what this piece is about’.
The increasing representation of LGBT+ stories within theatre is an important change but, we are still a long way from consistent, positive representation of both the community and its history. Similar can be said for LGBT+ representation within the wider world and thus, whilst there is a celebratory element in acknowledging 50 years since the passing of the Sexual Offences Act, we do not yet live in a world where people are completely free to love who they want to love. We must not become complacent because we are still so far from achieving equality. Scott stressed that whilst things have changed in the last 50 years, we are still very early on in our journey. He commented on how how media representation of couples is becoming ‘less archetypal’: we are seeing more adverts with ‘men walking hand in hand and, women proposing to each other’ and that this representation has been a positive shift over the past 5 – 10 years. But nonetheless, this is only the beginning. Andy added ‘we cannot take for granted what we have achieved’.
Within the play, themes of love and survival against the odds and, what it means to be a man are explored. Mitch and Stu are not the typical bot-meets-boy theatre concoction. Scott who played Stu in the Manchester run and is continuing in the role for the London run said that YANK! was ‘one of the first musical books that (he felt) was expertly written, which is quite rare’ and that the character of Stu appealed to him because he was ‘relatable’ and that he could see ‘similarities between (him)self and the character’. Had he have encountered this character when younger, he’d have felt ‘more confident in coming to terms with himself’. Andy’s role as Mitch appealed to him because upon reading the script the part felt ‘meaty and gritty’ and it presented a ‘nice challenge… a thinker’.
Speaking of thinkers, it is fair to ask the question of what YANK! brings to the table as a musical compared to if it had been a song-free play of the same story. LGBT+ representation in any theatrical form is a positive step forward, be it through hard hitting drama, contemporary dance piece or modern musical. By existing as a musical, YANK! offers a ‘real sense of transportation’ back to the 1940s, says Scott. Joseph Zellnik’s musical score gives an air of fun and harks ‘back to the golden era’. Andy added that the sole female performer in the show, Sarah-Louise Young plays a number of characters throughout and sings a whole range of songs from the era. He highlighted that whilst these songs ‘don’t exactly follow the story, (they) fit the moment’.
With a score taking us back to the 1940s and an anniversary marking 50 years since a much needed change, YANK! is an important piece of theatre to see this summer. An LGBT+ story that reminds an audience that Love is love is love.
YANK! is playing at the Charing Cross Theatre from 19 August.
Image: Andy Coxon and Scott Hunter in YANK!; Claire Bilyard