Friday, August 23, 2019

Review: 'Space Age Love Songs: A Queer Love Story' at Hen & Chickens Theatre, 22nd August 2019

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 4 Stars

Space Age Love Songs sticks closely to a familiar template. It's 1984 and our heroine is Cami (Reanne Black), a teenage girl who doesn't fit in. School is full of preppy snobs, while she mopes through the corridors in a ragged Siouxsie and the Banshees top. Her cruel booze-soused mum badgers her to 'look normal' and 'fit in'. Her suit of armour is a pair of headphones and a Walkman - if life is going to suck it may as well have a great soundtrack.

It'd be easy to extrapolate a John Hughesian plot from that setup. Cami would struggle against societal pressure, meet a guy, have her one best friend give her a makeover, promptly realise true beauty is within, go to the prom and dazzle the bullies who once mocked her. Cue The Psychedelic Furs.

But Space Age Love Songs subverts most of this. Writer TL Wiswell takes what would ordinarily be a background element of these stories and brings it to the forefront. Here, the one person that recognises Cami's worth is Daniel (Robert Twaddle), who occupies the 'gay best friend' role in the narrative. He's a wonderful and rare creature, standing out in his dowdy environment like a peacock in a henhouse.

Were this most other stories, he'd be an ancillary character. But here he's essentially the secret protagonist. Wiswell's script goes in heavy in exploring what it would really mean to be a camp gay man in a 1980s high school: the omnipresent threat of physical violence, dealing with a father who desperately wants to fool himself that his son is straight, feeling the pressure to 'act straight' to fit in and the ever-present yearning to be free of this hell.

Cami is infatuated with him, though her affections quickly receive hostility and disgust from Daniel's boyfriend Matt (Andie Worth). He's essentially a gay supremacist, daydreaming of a world inhabited solely by gay men, where straight and women (who he refers to as 'fish' and 'tuna') simply don't exist. Hypocritically, he cares much more about fitting in by putting up a facade of straightness, to the point of having sadistic romantic encounters with women because "one mouth is as good as the next".

Robert Twaddle as Daniel
What follows is a loose romantic rivalry between Cami and Andie for Daniel's affections, all leading towards the end of year Prom. It all adds up to an uplifting paean to the way marginalised people can support each other - and specifically to the relationships between gay men and straight women. 

Overlaid on top of all that is an allegorical science fiction story about enslaved 'Mandroids' yearning to be free of the mines they're forced to work in that squash their talents. In this fantasy, Daniel is the leader of the Mandroids, becoming a revolutionary leader that squashes their human masters and lives forever in beauty and poetry. 

That all takes place in Cami's imagination (I think) and these sequences are probably the best in the play. The cast are uniformly great dancers, with the fantasy scenes giving them the freedom to really go for it. Cue dramatic lighting, new wave music and elbows violently thrown at sharp angles. It's great (especially so in the sequence set to Heaven 17's Geisha Boys and Temple Girls), and more than justifies the Flock of Seagulls referencing title.

Thing is, these fantasy sequences really only have a tangential connection to the rest of the play, leaving this feeling like two narratives battling against one another. Both are compelling, but having to compete diminishes them both. Perhaps if the allegorical elements were a little stronger it'd work better, but as it is the connection between them is tangible... but a little loose.

Fortunately, that doesn't stop Space Age Love Songs from being consistently and thoroughly entertaining. Reanne Black's performance anchors things emotionally, mainly via her impressively communicative eyes. They're able to convey awkwardness, annoyance, anger and sadness with merely a glance. She brings a nervous energy to the part that works gangbusters, her performance distilling a tonne of references down into one extremely likeable heroine.

But anyone who's seen this can't deny that Robert Twaddle is the centrepiece of the show. He's simply magnetic:, androgynous in all the right ways and possessing enviable precision and confidence on stage. This is all showcased in his fantastic 'ostrich' performance, in which he embodies the large flightless bird to a David Attenborough remix. It's and he are amazing.

I had a great time at Space Age Love Songs. It's ragged around the edges and the narrative vinyl skips more than a couple of times, but this is clearly a sincere labour of love from the entire cast and crew. Micha Mirto's direction pinpoints the exact right tone, the cast are committed and enjoying themselves on stage and the carefully curated soundtrack is great (it's also helpfully listed in the programme). Check it out!

Space Age Love Song is at the Hen and Chickens Theatre until 25 August (tickets here), then moving to the Two Brewers from 4-28 September (tickets here).

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