If you have a spare hour, thirty quid, and can travel to London’s West End, I urge you to get a ticket for My Son’s a Queer (but what can you do?). No matter who you are. And do it quickly. This very limited run at the Garrick Theatre ends on 6 November. I say “no matter who you are” because it’s likely the title will have already made you decide if this show is for you. And that decision may well be wrong. And one you could regret.
This is a show for people who want to embrace life.
What’s in a name?
As a title, My Son’s a Queer (but what can you do?) isn’t that theatre-audience friendly. For a start, it’s too long. Only six of the Top 50 Broadway shows have titles longer than three words. And we abbreviate most of those to give us (The) Phantom (of the Opera), La Cage (aux Folles), and Fiddler (on the Roof).
More importantly, the title is clearly polarising. The wordiness will attract a specific – possibly marginalised – audience. The explicit reference to queerness. The more implicit nod to theatricality. (If the title has a rhythm that rings bells but you’re not sure why, listen to Les Misérables. It echoes a line from Beggars at the Feast sang by villains the Thenardiers. ‘Here comes a prince, there goes a Jew, this one’s a queer but what can you do)’. Such specificity is understandable when the source material is autobiographical as it is here. But it comes at the cost of reaching a wider market.
Precocious to Personal
The son of My Son’s a Queer is writer and performer Rob Madge. As we are ‘accidentally’ reminded, Madge has since given acclaimed performances as Les Miz’s Gavroche and Michael Banks in Mary Poppins. It is their memory of childhood joy and how the structures of grown-up society try to take that joy away. Interspersing fantasy with home movie footage, school report cards with show-stopping belters, the show feels both extravagant and intimate. Key to this is Madge’s performance, which can sway from precocious to personal in an instant. It has a conversational charm that has you nestling in the comfort of Rob’s palm.
For those who label themselves queer, or ‘friends of…’, there are many relatable memories. Same-sex childhood crushes. An innate shyness at not being able to fit in. A desire to show off and be the centre of attention. And there’s plenty more theatrical in-jokes for those performing in the West End’s various ensembles. Most of these err just on the right side of mainstream, such as when seven is defined as “Henry VIII’s six wives, plus swing”. Some, like a rehearsal timetable drawn up to include a sitzprobe, are clearly local jokes for local people. (FYI - a sitzprobe is a rehearsal where the singers sing with the orchestra for the first time). But it’s much more than that.
You don’t need to be out-and-proud to be moved by the stories of a loving family. You don’t have to know A Chorus Line to enjoy the step-step-step-ball-change dance moves. And you don’t have to listen to Elaine Paige on Sunday to be roused by the key-changes in songs that sound like first act showstoppers.
Clips of the Madge family home movies are played on a large TV screen, dominating the everyday living-room set. Never showy or elaborate, their normality is what makes the show so relatable. At times, very funny. At times, very moving. You will literally be laughing one minute, before noticing you’re choking back a tear the next.
We see Rob as a child, demanding screen-time whilst producing extravagant pieces of living-room theatre for the family to ‘enjoy’. We see pub-loving, rugby-fan Dad, constantly berated by Rob for missing cues or fluffing lines. Dad is the fully complicit victim of Rob’s perfection-driven bullying. Ordered to stay out of sight as he manoeuvres the harness that makes Rob as Tinkerbell ‘fly’, you could say Dad is the literal wind beneath his son’s wings.
We see Granny Grimble – the name Granny already taken on Equity. When Rob is confused by the Disney store’s division of things for boys and girls, Granny has the solution. She makes the wool wig for Rob to be Ariel and the yellow dress to be Belle. And we see the whole family. School reports warn that Rob’s predilection for the 'imaginative play area' would limit their ability to make friends. In response, we see Rob’s grandparents revealing the theatre they have spent months making so their world can flourish.
This is not an extraordinary family doing extraordinary things. The story is not told as a struggle through childhood, where every day brought with it a new battle to fight. This is about extraordinary ordinariness. It reminds us that the things that give your child enjoyment should be encouraged. All you need to do is normalise the unusual.
In the opening lines, Rob tells us this show is unashamedly ‘queer’. It’s for every little boy who would rather put on a wig and a dress than don a pair of football boots. It’s for every little girl who lends her brother make-up so she can wear his football boots instead. And it’s for the parents of all these children.
And it is.
But it’s also much more than that. And anyone who excludes themselves from seeing this because they don’t fit into that group is missing out on a truly wonderful, life-affirming piece of theatre.
Towards the end of the show, there appears to be a recent edit to the script. Barely noticeable, it suggests that the title may be changing for its next outing from My Son’s a Queer to My Child’s a Queer. Losing the gender-specificity makes sense for a show that makes a strong argument against such labels.
There would be merit in going one step further. Simply call it My Child. It gets to what I see as the show’s true heart; the importance of individuality. Sure, that individuality may well happen to be borne of queerness. It might also lead to one defining as non-binary. And it could be a sign of a theatricality that eventually evolves into a life in theatre. Assuming it comes with a talent like Rob’s (and face it, not all talent is equal).
But it may not be a sign of any of these things. After all, isn’t individuality, by its very definition, about the individual? And this goes back to my first point. This isn’t just a queer show about being queer for people who (already) embrace queerness. Sorry Rob. This is a show for people who want to embrace life.