“Hudson’s great success with “Welcome Home” is that it’s spectacular, silly and provocative”
Headlines in the media over the past few days about the Church of England and its debate over same sex marriage and relationships mean Willy Hudson’s brave and absorbing new solo show could hardly be more timely.
“Welcome Home” is from one perspective a mad rant about religion and an institution that has so frequently heaped shame on queer life, an attempt to heal (or escape from) a past of hurt.
But an autobiographical and uncomfortable show just mouthing off on the subject would become little more than a heavy soapbox speech or ill-informed Twitter comment.
And in fact when the energetic and often chaotic show is stripped down it is not ultimately as negative as you may be expecting. There’s a sense that if we actually bothered to listen to each other and attempt to understand rather than judge (a truth for all sides) then we may just be able to build a better present and future.
The springboard to the memoir is Hudson’s break-up with the boyfriend we were introduced to in “Bottom” and returning home to live with his parents, which leads to a plethora of thoughts about his upbringing, his local church and Robbie Williams.
Hudson’s great success with “Welcome Home” is that it’s spectacular, silly and provocative, using sci-fi, music, and humour to address break-up of relationships, break-up with the past, break-up with unyielding establishment – and putting yourself back together as a result.
“This is the making of me” he proclaims at the start and what results after 80 frantic minutes is a deeply personal tale of honesty and discovery on what for many will be a shared journey – even if the destination isn’t the same for all.
As both writer and performer Hudson could be in danger of becoming manically inward-looking as he seeks to demolish childhood nightmares and establishment edifices but director Zach James keeps him the right side of demonic.
If Hudson’s last show, “Bottom,” was revealing and buttock-clenching and performed more in a cabaret style, this is altogether more theatrically entertaining, determined and heart-wrenching. “Welcome Home” is certainly more a narrative of dark nightmare revenge than its predecessor’s pink fluffiness with a whiff of leather.
There’s as much here for the geeky as the cheeky: Doctor Who’s weeping angels stand like sentinels threatening to send the performer back in time if he fails to learn important lessons, while “Star Wars” references lead to an unexpected and heart-warming finale.
Anna Orton’s set and costume design add elements of nerdy kitsch and it’s clear that a lot of people have contributed to the success of this solo work. It is terrific to see the large company listed on the programme, a bunch of creatives given the chance to develop queer, neurodivergent and working class productions.
A review always runs the risk of becoming purely academic assessment so it must be stressed that Hudson aims to raise laughs as much as raising important questions. For all the moments of nervous seat-shuffling there are plenty of slices of mad comedy.
Hard-hitting with dashes of discomfort sitting alongside the comic, “Welcome Home” is likely to mirror the experiences of many who want to rage against a religious and all too often uncaring machine, but Hudson succeeds in giving his story and performance a heart and a hope.
“draws us into the big big hearts of these characters in a beautifully low-key way”
There is a moment in Tom Wells’ “Big Big Sky” where Angie, the café owner, talks of once sighting an albatross gliding across the Yorkshire shoreline. Nobody believed her. “You should have taken a photograph” she is told; which she rebuffs by explaining she would rather have just experienced the moment. The sentiment personifies the play that, in our Instagram age, rolls into our hearts like a breath of fresh air.
This burst of fresh air sweeps in from the North Sea onto the remote hamlet of Kilnsea on the Yorkshire coast. It is always closing time here. The café is closing in each scene, perhaps for good this time. The summer season is over, and as the long winter months beckon, even the way of life is tottering on the brink of extinction. But the café is a haven of hope, of tea and sympathy. Run by Angie (Jennifer Daley), helped by the younger Lauren (Jessica Jolleys), the clientele has flown south – along with the local bird population. Lauren’s father Dennis (Matt Sutton) has a habit of turning up for his freebie supper just as the ‘café open’ sign is dragged inside each evening. It is a cosy ritual, the cloak of which sometimes slips from the shoulder to reveal the bruises born of sadness and grief.
In walks Ed, an enthusiastic conservationist and ecologist, driven to this backwater for a job interview. Today he would be labelled as being ‘on the spectrum’, but in this timeless setting he is merely awkward; initially shy. A vegan geek, Sam Newton effortlessly makes his character loveable, pitching the mannerisms with precision and choreographing perfectly timed moments of understated humour. A captivating performance. It is tempting to say he stands out, but he is matched by the other three, all of whom bring a powerful and penetrating realism to the roles. Dennis bubbles with the Luddite gruffness of a man who has lived in one place for too long, yet Matt Sutton refocuses this myopic vision and we can clearly see a grieving heart that beats beneath. Jessica Jolley’s Lauren is a gorgeous mix of sense and sensibility, who mocks and respects in equal measure – particularly Ed, for whom she falls. Holding the fort is Jennifer Daley, an outstanding portrayal as the maternal yet heart-achingly vulnerable Angie.
Wells’ writing takes centre stage along with the actors. Nothing much happens but it is brimming with backstories and the subtle and melancholic prose draws out the sadness and grief in just the right measure that it sits comfortably alongside the humour. Tessa Walker’s direction reflects this, unafraid to string out the silences between the clamour of emotion, forming the rhythm of the breakers and backwash on the shingle outside the café. A refreshing and bracing combination, capped by Bob Bailey’s authentic coastal tea-room design.
Each character is mourning the loss of a loved one – a mother, a wife, or a daughter. But the will to keep moving perseveres. The café is on the brink of extinction, but it perseveres. Like the hope that shines through the cracks of these characters’ sadness, it will always be present. Life does go on. This type of theatre is sadly often thought to be obsolete in today’s climate, where everything strives to be innovative, shocking, or polemic. “Big Big Sky” definitely disproves that notion. It draws us into the big big hearts of these characters in a beautifully low-key way. It may be a harsh world they live in, but warmth glows from this snapshot of their lives, which will stay in your heart longer than any photograph.