We begin, as most trauma does, in the distant past. A man stands before us, bearing a sagely smile that speaks of humility and wisdom. A voice smooth as silk and comforting like a favourite grandparent, he puts us at ease immediately as he beckons us in with a simple request: “Tell me about your mother.” For an unsuspecting victim, it’s a nonchalant query, an icebreaker, a chance for us to truly express ourselves to this kind-seeming man, one who could maybe even figure out what’s inherently wrong with us, understand our body’s abnormal desires baulking against society’s grain; perhaps even fix us.
A hauntingly poignant and complex play that affirms vulnerability, tenderness and grace under pressure
From Orange Works Company, Locusts is an exemplary drama which has been carefully crafted by the hands of the masterful Ian Tucker-Bell and Garth McLean that draws upon their own experiences of gay conversion therapy. The play examines the midlife reflections of Stephen (Tucker-Bell) looking back on his youth in the 1980s, where the rising action is provided from the emergence of a haunting figure of his past. Pete (Nick Blessley), the pastor of the church Stephen attended as a youth, has contacted the protagonist out of the blue requesting the latter’s help. So confident in having helped ‘cure’ Stephen’s sexuality through the miracle of prayer, Pete now seeks Stephen’s assistance in doing likewise for his own daughter.
With the assistance of his loving partner and psychologist Jeff – portrayed with boisterous vigour by the talented Pierse Stevens – and his companion Sian (Julie Flower), Stephen is able to revisit his past through a different lens. Initially unwilling to see the scars left by the horrific experiences of conversion therapy, Stephen is finally able to recognise his own feelings, realising his misplaced sense of admiration for Pete was merely a denial trauma-response to the bullying and Pavlovian training designed to ‘fix’ camp residents of their ‘afflictions’.
The play does an excellent job of unpacking the injuries sustained from evangelical zeal and bigotry, where the underlying theme of trauma is exhibited excellently in the dialogue, movement and expressions that feels all too real. Stephen’s trauma is subtle, almost too subtle at times such that one would almost hope for more emotional output. But this betrays the nature of Locusts that quietly reminds us that trauma comes in many forms, not all of them brash outbursts. Perhaps its crowning achievement is in how well it fashions a complex villain in Pete. There are a few ways the antagonist could have gone, but Locusts doesn’t reduce him to a stock type Bible basher nor a self-hating closeted gay, but instead showcases with eerie accuracy the hallmarks of an abusive manipulator and the frightening aftermath once their mask has been shattered, brought to animated life by the skilled Blessley.
An ambivalent mood pervades at first, happy-go-lucky as it avoids the ever-present shadow looming ever larger in the background, bringing a rich tone that finds similarities with the likes of Happy Valley in its careful mix of drama, black comedy and emotional pain. It’s the little details which truly make the show convincing: Jeff’s crucifix earring in his left ear; the synchronised songs of praise; Stephen’s back and forth pacing as he weighs the comfort of blissful ignorance with the harsh truth about Pete; and the ever-present symbol of the locust, gnawing away at time.
True to its nature, at the play’s conclusion there lingers many unanswered questions and damage not fully healed. As the audience rises to their feet in applause, our troupe of actors take a bow, but candidly remind us that conversion therapy is still alive and well in the United Kingdom, a haunting truth to a poignant and complex play that affirms vulnerability, tenderness and grace under pressure.