The Oval House’s If Only… season of ambitious performances aims to be a profound and intimate look into complex queer lives. Until the end of March, the Upstairs space hosts Ben Webb’s trilogy of short plays entitled The Well and Badly Loved, tied together by cycles of love and trauma between two ‘lost boys’. The text weaves together fragments of gilded prose into soft, suspended moments, punched with raw physicality choreographed by Imogen Knight of Frantic Assembly. The show perpetually shifts, never quite comfortable with itself, yet performing company Risking Enchantment delivers a rending, turbulent experience.
Wasting no time to smash through public facing facades, intense physicality pulls the audience into an intimate relationship with Tom and his love, Matt. Putting the body at the fore with extended scenes of physical endurance – bringing performers Sean Hart and James Murphy (and perhaps the audience) to exhaustion – the web of wider societal and political issues of gay relationships is excluded entirely. Rightly so, as the unfolding images address the audience on the fundamental common ground of our human bodies and needs and desires. There is, thankfully, no clichéd ‘coming out’ speech nor is there reference to Tom and Matt’s relationship being anything other than the explosive force it can be for anyone. It is less a piece about gay love as, simply, love.
This is not to say that The Well and Badly Loved exists in a vacuum – there are numerous links to past queer theatre practice. Webb notes, “in the best tradition of reappropriation and bricolage”, the central monologue His Spread Legs unusually builds upon the biblical Song of Songs and Kathy Acker’s seminal novel Blood and Guts in High School. The use of canned cinematic music subtly alludes to camp melodrama, and, in parallel with drag and camp performance identities, interventions of self-awareness and vulnerability question the performers’ relationship to their audience. There is a wealth of material at play here which threatens to alienate the uninitiated.
Without any of this prior knowledge (I confess the performance prompted research for this review) one can still be immersed in the physical and emotional spectacle. I found myself lost at points within dense and shifting material never still long enough to grasp – but it is perhaps an experience which reflects the unending feelings of love and trauma onstage. Balancing on eloquent, evocative writing and physical imagery, Ben Webb and Risking Enchantment have achieved a complex and vital work for anyone who has ever loved.
The Well and Badly Loved is at the Oval House until 31 March. For more information and to book tickets, visit the Oval House website.