Under his moniker, The Queer Historian, performance artist Tommy is here to show us the scars that homophobia leaves, physical and emotional. When Tommy was 15, a group of boys he knew assaulted him brutally. Now, 15 years later, he’s on a mission to confront his assailants.
Having this true tale at the heart of the piece gives Homophobe a powerful foundation. Tommy is able to tell the tale with some weight and shows early promise of being able to move an audience. Every so often he darts backstage and documentary footage, interviews with different gay figures, take over on a screen upstage. Each subject gives their own personal response to homophobia. This footage is always enlightening, and shot and presented to a high professional standard.
The roots of Tommy’s story make the perfect centrepiece for a solo show, but tonight Tommy makes for a nervous performer. His hands shake throughout and the dialogue isn’t as polished as it could be. He includes dancing and magic tricks in intervals between sections of the monologue, but they aren’t quite as empowering or shocking as it feels they are intended to be.
My main hang-up however was with structure. The quest to find his assailants is soon abandoned as he becomes side-tracked, obsessively devoting time each week to phone an elderly woman, Margaret, about a homophobic letter she wrote to a newspaper in 1987. This comes out of nowhere, tenuously linked to the original mission. And to that initial quest we are given no closure. The climax, Margaret’s eventual shame when confronted with her letter almost thirty years later, is good enough for Tommy, but it wasn’t for me.
This wasn’t helped by the fact that the recordings of their phone conversations are dramatised. It’s incredibly moving but this is because it sounds like good script writing, and so I found myself doubting: in the hands of this skilful historian, if this isn’t a primary source recording of the conversation how can we trust that these were close enough to her exact words? For a piece whose strength comes from the truth of the original incident I felt a little disappointed by this decision.
It’s incredibly important that voices and stories such as Tommy’s are heard in theatre. It got me thinking about all the other voices lacking in confidence that won’t show the courage Tommy has to get on the stage and tell our audiences how things really are. It’s that truth that is most affecting, assuredly it’s also that which will prompt change. But tonight I also saw how a performance plays dangerously with the trust an audience places in it when it tries to edit or control the impact of that truth, no matter how tragic.
Homophobe plays at the The Kings Head Theatre until August 22.