When you’re at a festival with literally thousands of acts to see, the most daunting challenge will always be sifting through the sand to find that rare glimmer of gold, a truly great show. Naturally then, you start to assemble some criteria for which to see and which to politely decline. A man dressed as a gorilla, doing absolutely nothing? Maybe not. Any show with puppets? No way. “A constellation of four queer stories scattered across time and space”? Yeah, okay.
When it comes to shows with LGBT themes, categorisation can be problematic. Just as no woman wants to be seen as ‘just’ a female comedian, no one wants their work to be regarded as just another gay Fringe show. Yet labels can be helpful, like the blurb quoted above for ‘Callisto: A Queer Epic’, which persuaded me to see this gem of a play. This original work, written by Howard Coase, tells four intertwining tales of queer love and desire: in London, 1675, Arabella Hunt has secretly entered the first recorded same-sex marriage; in 1936, Alan Turing pays a visit to the mother of his first love; in 1979, a naive woman from Nebraska enters the porn industry to find her true love; and in the year 2223, two men are building a paradise on the moon. Each star in this constellation is connected by bigger ideas: love, time, and Utopianism. Think Tom Stoppard’s ‘Arcadia’ meets ‘Cloud Atlas’, with the gay themes of each brought to the forefront. It’s great storytelling – sad, funny and stirring. With the 2014 film ‘The Imitation Game’ still in mind, it’s refreshing to see a story about Alan Turing that doesn’t have such a disturbingly fetishistic focus on his suicide in 1954, or present his gayness as some kind of tragic flaw. ‘Callisto’ is an adventurous work, and a brave one if that’s what it means not to pander to straight audiences. Yet despite the serious subject matter, the cast are able to inject some levity, making this a stellar performance.
Another great performance came from ‘Shelf’, a South London based comedy duo consisting of Ruby Clyde and Rachel Watkins-Dowie. The pair mix standup and sketches in this oddball, character based show. Early on, ‘Shelf’ invite the audience to find out whether they’re more similar to Ruby or Rachel by taking a personality quiz: “Are you gay? A. yes, or B….yes”. What makes their show really stand out is the crackling chemistry between their on stage personae (no, they’re not a couple). The dark, introverted Ruby makes a perfect counterpoint to Rachel’s exuberance in this unsettlingly hilarious portrayal of a dysfunctional friendship.
Suzi Ruffell’s charmingly offbeat standup show, ‘Common’, was a welcome break from the overwhelmingly male, middle class, London-focused comedy that dominates the Fringe. Amongst gently mocking observations about her family and growing up in working class Portsmouth, Ruffell mentions that she is engaged to a woman, and they’ve recently adopted a cat together. The cynic in me wonders how many of these audience members would have been here had they known the comedian was gay. Most of them, hopefully, because she’s warm, engaging, and riotously funny.
Ruffell herself tells a thoughtful anecdote about a corporate gig she once did, at which she was asked by the organisers to avoid mentioning her sexuality. I noticed another irritating example of homophobia in the comedy world at a political standup gig earlier that day, in which a self-consciously “edgy” left wing comic jested that UKIP’s tasteless purple and yellow colour scheme shows why they need more gay men in the party. It’s the kind of tired joke you expect to hear at an awkward family party, not from a young standup. My point is that despite it’s liberal arty credentials, the Fringe isn’t necessarily a safe space to be LGBT, and that shows like ‘Callisto’, ‘Shelf’ and Suzi Ruffell are therefore not just enjoyable, but absolutely essential.
Phyllida is an English student transplanted from a pot in Devon. Her poetry has previously been commended in the Foyle Young Poets award 2013, and the Timothy Corsellis Prize 2014. She has written for the UCL publications Savage and The Writer’s Block, and is the creator and editor of the art and poetry zine TAME, the first issue of which will be released this year. Her favourite writers are Keats, Proust, and Rilke. Apart from writing she enjoys making art, watching films, and exploring London in search of records and coffee.