I rarely attend (or review) community/non-professional theatre, as I just don’t have the time. However, I was drawn to CARNATION FOR A SONG, which was presented for six performances over four days in early April at the Young Vic’s Maria space, which seats around 200. The show was sold out but I managed to get a ticket.
The pull? This was a community show inspired by a professional show. The participants are ordinary people and not trained actors. The show first came to light last year, starting as a Young Vic Taking Part production, a community-created response to the musical FUN HOME which played a sold out run in the Young Vic’s Main House. FUN HOME’s story – about a lesbian comic book artist telling her story about growing up in the family’s funeral parlour in America – was accomplished, from a cast including Jenna Russell and Zubin Varla, to the Janine Tesori score (she wrote “Caroline, or Change” as well). That show definitely connected with the audience we saw it with, and the local LGBTQ community who got to see it were similarly enthused. In fact, they created their own response to the show, a short piece telling of their own lives, which was quickly given a stage at the smaller Maria studio at the Young Vic itself.
I was aware of this at the time but due to its short run, did not have the opportunity to see it.
By one of those funny coincidences, I was recently looking around the theatre websites in a break from my other work, when I noticed this new incarnation ( ! ) of the show. Perhaps “show” is not the best term to use, maybe “sharing” might describe it more efficiently.
The first performance was Wednesday afternoon and the audience queueing were a very mixed crowd, old to young, no doubt friends and relations, but also others curious to see what it was all about. The fact that all the tickets for the run were free, courtesy of two anonymous donors (thanks to you both) was an added incentive. Upon entering the flat, unraked auditorium, seating was arranged on three sides of a square stage where about fifteen participants sat holding long stemmed green carnations, reclaiming this aged and mostly forgotten coded symbol for homosexuality.
shaping the experiences shared here through their own work in taking the shared experiences and creating a work directly relating to that experience. Their format, professionalism, care of the participants and hard work have been memorable.
The show itself was a mix of songs and monologues about the older LGBT experience. All participants were over 50. Using songs and monologues specially written for them by Writer and Director Megan Cronin and Composer/Lyricist/MD Joseph Atkins, they shared their personal experiences. Funny songs were tinged with reality (a great song entitled “Straightening Up The House”, explaining that when visitors are expected you pop all the “too gay” stuff in a drawer- I know, I’ve done it), to the song about neighbours talking about a gay couple but never quite talking directly to them. The stories, by turns, funny, sad, angry, defiant – highlighted universal feelings and drew a strong connection from the audience.
The stories which stay with me most are the lesbian district nurse tending to the many AIDS sufferers in the 1980s, who told her story carefully, with enormous love and compassion. Also, the clubber reliving his youth in a wild frenzy of a dance which evidenced that inside ourselves we can be many different ages, not just one. But for me, the most poignant of all was a lanky, dark – haired man who did not speak but listened with us to his own recorded voice telling us about himself, for this gentleman was coping with the ravages of Alzheimer’s. In touching and straightforward manner, he told us about his life and partner of (as I remember) 37 years. What was particularly moving, though, was to see him reacting to the words he himself had spoken, evidencing a degree of detachment that he was dealing with on a daily basis. This brave man who was doing his utmost to enjoy life to the full despite the odds was a symbol for everyone of us, whatever their background. It also of course made one realise that we could so easily be in his shoes.
What was also very rewarding was the way that the speakers took time to look after each other. They had created a special bond with each other through participating in this show. One of the many values that this group demonstrated was that living is about making connections, not building walls.
As far as I know, none of them were professional actors or had had professional training, but that essentially was the point – they were you and me, ordinary people with their own stories to tell. One lady talked about the “double invisibility” of being both a lesbian and an older person, which resonated with the audience, and the everyday pain we have to live with as people mis-sex our loved ones by sheer assumption. Still more, stories of intense love, hedonism and eroticism, triumphs and failures, fury and pain, love and loss, and the simple inexorable fact of time passing were all common ground between the audience and the participants.
The group got a genuinely appreciative standing ovation at every performance. Speaking to the young staff afterwards who had crowded in eagerly, standing at the sides of the auditorium to see the show, they were hugely enthusiastic and supportive. For fellow LGBTQ+ people, it was a reminder of how far we have come, but also how far we still have to go, and that prejudice is not limited to the LGBT community. For those who were not LGBTQ+, it was a stark reminder that in the universal test of ageing, there is much more that unites us than divides us.
CARNATION FOR A SONG was, in essence, the best of times.
Thank you to all the cast, to Writer and Director Megan Cronin and Composer/Lyricist/MD Joseph Atkins, and all their creative collaborators for an experience that we shall all long remember and cherish.