I had to privilege of watching The Burnley Buggers’ Ball and Burnley’s Lesbian Liberator being performed in the Bluecoat at Liverpool on Saturday. It was an extension of sorts from the Sexing the Past Conference held there over the weekend. The Burnley Buggers Ball was written by Stephen M. Hornby and had the character of Allan Horsfall (Michael Justice) as the lead narrative, which was at times difficult to watch in its sheer level of emotion. The second play was Burnley’s Lesbian Liberator written by Abi Hynes. As part of last year’s LGBT History Month Abi wrote a play called ‘Mister Stokes: The Man-Woman of Manchester’ (a play on an 1859 newspaper headline) of which I was named as an historical advisor.
What struck me most about the plays was the level of audience participation – now I usually cringe at this and try to avoid any audience involvement in social environments, but this participation seemed correct and was the right thing to include. I also particularly enjoyed how the characters were slotted into the audience and then jumped into character when they needed to.
Both plays were set in Burnley in the 70s with the first being set in Burnley Library where a local meeting was being held to petition for Burnley to have its first homosexual club that would be a safe social environment for other individuals to meet friends and other gay men, enjoy leisure time and potentially meet a lover or partner, the club would also be open to heterosexual people. Ultimately it was a space to feel comfortable and safe for homosexuals. With the actors in the auidence and the audience involvement, it made it feel as if we were in that meeting in Burnley Library in 1971 and not in a performance in 2017.
The first play began with a confused Allan Horsfall on stage who was nearing the end of his life and is given a chance to return and change/alter one moment of his past in exchange for one year of his earthly life. With this condition, I could not help being transported back to my A Level English Literature class on Christopher Marlowe’s play Doctor Faustus in which he sells his soul to the devil for 3 wishes with dreadful ramifications. Evidently, Allan is plagued with guilt and shame for not standing in support of the club when he had the chance and wanted to alter his decision. I think that this allowed the audience to have time for their own self-reflection to consider things they may have wanted to change. Ultimately the moral of the play was to stand up for what you believe in and not submit or accept anything you are not happy with – be brave and be counted.
Various audience members are pointed out from different viewpoints about the club including, The Gay Liberation Front, Father John Neville (Kyle Walker), Councillor Wilfred Roberts (Judy Holt), Ray Gosling (Joseph Carter), and Ken Pilling (Dean Gregory). Obviously, the councillors and Father Neville represented the more archaic views and voiced disgust due to the club encouraging sex with minors – despite the activists wanting to have a strict 21 years + restriction!
One perspective came from Mrs Swindelhurst (Judy Holt) who described the loss of her son at 16 through suicide, on recovering his diaries it was clear he was struggling with his sexuality and therefore, thought suicide was the only option. Mrs Swindlehurst wanted the club to stop any other parents suffering as she had done. I think that this was particularly poignant in that only a personal experience can really affect individuals who are supportive of a cause.
A background theme running parallel to the meeting was the relationship between Allan and Harold Pollard (Allan’s real life partner until Harold’s death in 1996). A memory that was discussed was the first Christmas the pair fell in love and Harry gave Allan a sparkly angel Christmas decoration to commemorate their love for one another. There was a scene of inner turmoil and emotion that plagued Allan in that he had chosen to revisit Burnley Library and not to remember a happier time with Harry. However, my understanding of this was that personal memories will always be cherished between a couple and on they can ever experience that moment – it cannot be taken away. It also showed that Allan felt he needed to change what he did in the library, for his own mind and identity he needed to stand up in support of the club.
The two plays were seamlessly entwined and linked together through the angel Christmas decoration, being a reminder of hope, faith, belief and of fight. I was mostly looking forward to Burnley’s Lesbian Liberator because I have not seen a huge surge of lesbian drama on stage and largely I think early lesbian fight comes from a confused sense of feminism – women were fighting for women and women’s freedom not to love other women. Burney’s Lesbian Liberator engaged in the unfair dismissal of Mary Winter (Emily Spowage) who wore a ‘Lesbian Liberation’ pin badge on shift at the Burnley Bus Depo.
The play focussed on three women, all members of a feminist group initially, and then branched out to protest in support of Mary and her badge! There was an underlying relationship that was explored between Mary and Susan (Emily Heyworth) in that Mary was in love with Susan but it seemed that Susan was struggling for her own sexual identity and was pushing Mary away. The play was filled with a rise in feminist gusto with a touch of lesbian love and sprinkled with a lot of ‘baby dyke drama’ (as told by Mo – Judy Holt).
One of the main arguments to come out of the play for me was that Mary discussed to Mr Greenwood – her boss – that the badge was a safety net or a deterrent against men thinking they had the right ogle and harass her in the workplace or on the street. For me I saw exactly where she came from because I know when I go out to town men think it’s okay to touch, chat up and engage with me and my friends when it’s not welcome – I mean how many times have we grabbed our best friend and said, ‘were lesbians’ just to get that person away from us? Why should we have to do that? It’s 2017 and still men think they have the authority to approach and ‘get’ any woman they find attractive. The play was a great show of solidarity in supporting other women, but it also showed the challenge of being a woman, and more specifically a lesbian in the 1970s.
One of the big reasons for me enjoying the play was the audience involvement in recreating the meetings and protest and to consider the impact if everyone had stood up and had been counted. I attended this performance with my mum and she text me yesterday to say:
I thought the audience participation was welcomed and the true characters and related stories made me think that there is still prejudice out there in the community for LGBT people, even after 40 and 50 years, some ignorant people are stuck in their elders ways and beliefs.
She ended with, ‘people still need to fight for their rights’.
This is true in that we can all learn something from the play in being a little more outspoken. Agree with people and disagree with ideas. At the end of the day we are all human with our own thoughts, ideas and considerations.