A Haunted Existence
Camden People’s Theatre
Reviewed – 2nd October 2019
“It is a work of exquisite, tender beauty. A unique evening at the theatre.”
Camden People’s Theatre is an intimate venue. The theatre itself holds 60 people, and the pre-show meeting space is not unlike a little tea room, cosy and informal. It always seems slightly out of time, and set apart from 21st century London. Tom Marshman couldn’t have chosen a more appropriate place to stage his deeply touching and beautifully crafted piece of theatre, created in response to a piece of 1950s British queer history.
Marshman makes it clear from the outset that he is a storyteller. There is no ‘acting’ here; instead he talks to us, lip syncs, shows us images, plays us records and reads us letters, all of which serve the story that he wants to share. In 1953, a young gay man – Geoffrey Patrick Williamson – made sexual overtures to an older man on a railway train. This older man turned out to be a Railway Officer in plain clothes, and their encounter led to a court case, as a result of which 17 men were arrested, and nine sent to prison.
Marshman has researched the men involved in this case and the show is the result of his discoveries. Research of this kind can seem a rather dry and dusty pursuit; academic and removed from the emotional world. Nothing could be further from the truth here. Tom Marshman’s work is infused with tenderness. He handles these men’s stories with the greatest love and care, and there is a gentleness inherent in his movement on stage, and in the perfectly chosen 1950s records that he plays that provide his musical score. This is no nostalgic comfort-zone however. Although there are some happy endings, the persecution of these men destroyed lives, and also led to a suicide. Their treatment was brutal; the facts speak for themselves.
A Haunted Existence avoids sentimentality as it is artistically precise. Marshman is most definitely an artist, and one of exceptional skill. The gauze projections could stand alone as an artwork, merging, as they do, archive footage, and newly created black and white images of Marshman himself as period characters in the story. His movement too is spare – whether it be the semaphore alphabet that we see at the top of the show or the mesmeric solo ballroom dancing sequence a little later on – and it is beautiful. Marshman also lip syncs to the clipped 1950s tones of the presiding judge in the case, and to the words of Lord Owen, which laid early foundations for the Wolfenden report a decade later. This is, unexpectedly, extraordinarily moving, and a welcome reminder of the truly subversive power of this gay cabaret skill. Wonderful too, to have a brief lesson in Polari thrown into the mix, and a treat to hear that arch and creative language of subterfuge spoken out loud.
The effect of the whole is that of a delicate layering, a collage, reflecting the process, the careful unravelling of very personal and yet profoundly resonant histories.
It is a work of exquisite, tender beauty. A unique evening at the theatre. Bravo.
Reviewed by Rebecca Crankshaw
Photography by Matt Glover
A Haunted Existence
Camden People’s Theatre until 4th October
Previously reviewed at this venue: