Love Song to Lavender Menace

“Lavender Menace”, according to Wikipedia, were “an informal group of lesbian radical feminists formed to protest the exclusion of lesbians and lesbian issues from the feminist movement at the Second Congress to Unite Women in New York City on May 1, 1970”. James Ley’s new play, though, is not about them. Rather, it’s about another Lavender Menace; arguably, one that was just as passionate and significant—Edinburgh’s (indeed Scotland’s) first gay, lesbian and feminist bookshop.

Both performers are funny, clever, and full of vigour.

Edinburgh’s Lavender Menace was opened, by friends Bob Orr and Sigrid Neilson, in late August 1982—which, for context, was less than three years after the partial decriminalisation of male homosexual acts belatedly reached dour Presbyterian Scotland. This basement shop lasted a remarkable five years, before being reincarnated as the more prominently-located West & Wilde. Nevertheless, it’s Lavender Menace for which many Scottish LGBT people of a certain age—this reviewer included—have the greatest nostalgia; it was the first “safe space” where many of us could relax, without the stresses inherent in the city’s growing number of gay bars.

It’s this role as “safe space” which lies at the heart of Ley’s play, set overnight in the bookshop just before it closes its doors for the last time in 1987. Fictionalised staff members Lewis and Glen are packing books into boxes, while also rehearsing a “homage” to the shop’s unseen founders—the writerly mechanism which Ley uses primarily to explain Bob and Sigrid’s story and how the shop came into being—ironically enough, after Bob’s previous small book-selling endeavour had been thrown out of the city’s LGBT centre for stocking Marxist literature and an allegedly blasphemous Christmas Card.

Yet there is more to this play than just the dry history of a community-focused bookshop; Lewis, in particular, sees the closure of Lavender Menace as a sign of a future he doesn’t want, of capitalism’s “commercialisation of gay culture, and culture in general”—a gentrification that comes hand-in-hand with AIDS and Thatcher’s Government pushing through the discriminatory “Section 28” legislation. That’s the political, but there’s the personal here too: Lewis and Glen have known each other for many years and, while never “an item”, are clearly reluctant to admit their genuinely deep feelings for each other.

The chemistry between the two characters is well served by Pierce Reed, as the mildly flamboyant Lewis, and Matthew McVarish as the much-more-easy-going “undercover heterosexual” Glen. The two also switch, with some skill, to other characters, both within the “homage” and outside: such as a “Hungry Bottom” policeman, and a closeted man spending an evening looking for the shop without finding it. (The shop sign was taken down every night; not just for fear of vandalism, but to avoid the paperwork that a permanent sign would have required in an architecturally protected area of Edinburgh’s New Town.)

Both performers are funny, clever, and full of vigour. Mamoru Iriguchi’s set—chalk-sketched book shelves that magically illuminate with book-spines—is effective without being too specific. Undoubtedly, director Ros Philips keeps a strong pace, but there are nevertheless some moments when it all feels more like a succession of sketches rather than a tightly-bound, cohesive whole; that it’s trying to say too much when it really needs to say less, more clearly.

Reviews by Paul Fisher Cockburn


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The Blurb

1987: the 5th anniversary of LGB bookshop Lavender Menace. Sales staff Lewis and Glen look back at its origins, and importance—a beautifully funny and moving exploration of the passion it takes to make something happen, and the loss in letting it go.

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