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13th February 2013

Theatre: Right Side Up

Jessie Cohen
Manchester’s theatre scene is swamped with productions that regurgitate heteronormative and regressive values. Take Grease, which showed a few months ago at The Palace Theatre. The production was unimaginative and lacking in irony; failing, most critically, to pay attention to the shift in gender dynamics since the 1950s.
Horrified, I watched as teenage girls vacated the theatre, pummeled with the message that innocence and frigidity get you nowhere, but aspiring to fit into trousers that resemble a second skin will bag you popularity and the, all-important, boyfriend.
In another disenchanting theatre venture, I recently went to see The Accrington Pals (currently showing at The Royal Exchange) which has the audacity to stage the domestic boredom experienced by women in the First World War (for a rather ironic coma-inducing three hours). In one of the most impressive theatres in the city, I find myself reeling in offense as I watch ‘lovestruck’ women moan to each other that they have become ‘queer in the head’ (!!) while making tea on circuit.
If I wanted to go to a Stepford Wives convention I would have visited my grandmother’s house, thank you very much.
Despite sitting close to the front, I choose freedom take and wee snooze – perhaps a mistake as it turns out dribbling all over myself was enough to challenge the play’s precarious position as primary spectacle. My point is, mainstream theatre re-packages old stories, digs up dated issues and implicitly promotes old-fashioned values – it’s dry like a martini (the one that no one actually enjoys) and that needs to be shaken AND, sorry Bond, seriously stirred.
Enter The Secret Diaries of a Teenage Queer. I expected this play to be abysmal. It is a low-budget, three-man production with a title that recalls crass televised and filmic explorations of ‘real-women’s lives’ like Secret Diary of a Call Girl (commonly compared to Sex and the City) and Bridget Jones’ Diary.
I was prepared for something along the lines of ‘The Story of Tracey Beaker with a queer twist’. Rather embarrassingly, my preconceptions are immediately challenged. I am informed on arrival that the play sold out months in advance, leading The Contact Theatre to provide a matinee slot which failed to stem the demand as a waiting list continued to build.
In the outlandish possibility that a play like this one would show at one of Manchester’s larger theatres, the full-house that Grease failed to bring about might actually be achieved. As it stands, ‘alternative’ theatre with ‘non-normative’ story-lines feature at small, independent venues with packed-out audiences while larger theatres recycle the old stuff, drawing pitiful crowds. Clearly, Manchester theatreland would benefit from broadening its horizons.
The Secret Diaries of a Teenage Queer portrays the self-outing process of Hayley – a woman from the north who re-lives memories from her angst-ridden teenage years while unpacking old boxes in her father’s flat. Hayley’s box-rummaging triggers memories of tunes from the late eighties and early nineties which take us back to the years when she contended with social pressures to have a boyfriend and ‘put out’ like ‘every normal girl in school’.
Sexuality is shown to be a tyrannically unquestionable area of teenage development, exemplified by best friend Deb’s horrified response when Hayley comes out to her:
Deb: ‘All I’ve ever done is try make you normal like me. You keep your mouth shut!’
Hayley: ‘I haven’t done anything wrong!’
Deb: ‘You have! In your head! You are a fucking dirty queer pig!’
Similarly, though with less venom, Hayley’s father admits years later: ‘I didn’t want you to be g…’ The Secret Diaries of a Teenage Queer profoundly demonstrates the hostile space in which one ‘comes out’. Playwright Sarah Evans says that she seeks to explore ‘the in between site of tolerance and acceptance’ that a homosexual must straddle in twenty-first century English society. 
Indeed, we see that achieving a sense of acceptance in oneself does not protect the individual from being shunned and shamed. Notably, however, the play posits the outed position as an important one, even if it risks being vulnerable to attack and social exclusion. It is realistic but empowering.
Post-performance workshops are on offer to young people which will be used to re-shape this ‘work-in-progress’ (director Rachel Moorhouse), showing a rare openness in theatre to make changes to the script according to audience feedback.
The play can be seen to follow in the footsteps of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America (1993) – possibly the most successful ‘coming out narrative’ ever staged – which was edited numerous times while it was on circuit as Kushner kept in touch with the turbulent political changes occurring at the time. Still, Angels, like many plays of its kind, deals exclusively with men’s outing processes, so Moorhouse is covering relatively new ground even in the ‘alternative’ theatre scene.
Hayley’s story is in fact a dramatization of real teenage diaries given to Evans – this is not ‘real-life’ re-packaged for mere entertainment, but an appropriation of actual lived experiences to deliver an impacting comment of a timely topic.
Another progressive, and unprecedented, aspect to this production is the unusual casting of female characters. Sarah Emmott, who plays Hayley, and Jennifer Jordan O’Neill (Deb), are not your typical ‘size-impossible’ actresses. They are full-figured women with bodies an audience can relate to and, most progressively, their figures are totally irrelevant to the story – unlike say, Hairspray where a ‘larger than life’ female protagonist is staged as a ‘hilarious fatso’ with unrealistically big dreams.
Emmott and O’Neill use their bodies constantly – they dance, physically fight and, most terrifically, they EAT. Actual chips, crisps and even an English Breakfast feature in scenes which take place in ordinary environments from the home to the park and play a normalizing role, bringing conversations about sexuality out of the psychotherapist’s office and into the everyday.
This is a play that concerns all women, all people in fact who are interested in challenging taboos that are entrenched in the social mindset, even it just means emerging with an affirmation that carbohydrates can be eaten guilt-free.
At its heart, The Secret Diaries of a Teenage Queer is not just about being gay. It is also about the immense challenge of resisting pressure to conform in society – an inevitably up-hill struggle for those who are brave enough to lay their own tracks.
Its power, however, lies in the demonstration that sexuality is an ‘especially dense transfer point for relations of power’ (Michael Foucault, The History of Sexuality, 1976), as it does not shy away from giving the audience a dose of cold realism at the end when Hayley and her wife are denied the right to adopt and raise a family.
That warm, fulfilled feeling that theatre so often delivers was robbed of each audience member and instead I was left with a sense of deep dissatisfaction, fuelling a desire to strive to re-align dominant attitudes towards sexuality.
This performance blows the middle-class, nuclear-family catering purpose of theatre right out of the water. This is about using the arts to inspire social change. This, homos, heteros, queers and questionings, is theatre.

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