Yesterday I told a slightly sceptical friend, who worked in the original Masquerade Club, that I was going to the press night of Laura Lees’ new play ‘Masquerade’. He said that if the omnipresent manager wasn’t swishing about with trays of sandwiches teetering on his hand, then it wouldn’t be authentic. He needn’t have worried.
Lees (whose day-job is in the Royal Court’s Box Office) has grown the play from the recollections of her uncle Mike, who for a time worked as a DJ in the iconic Liverpool venue. To be clear, we’re talking here about the original incarnation of The Masquerade which stood on a part of Cases Street now submerged under the Boots store in Clayton Square. The story follows Mike as he tries to reconcile his sexual identity with the world around him, and to find a place and a community where he can feel at home.
Like so many LGBT people coming out in the 1980s, Mike nervously eases his closet door open to discover a world terrified of the AIDS epidemic staring him in the face. It’s in the Masquerade that he finds a safe haven, and more besides. Along with his party-animal friend Tony he makes a second home in the club, where he falls for the glamorous Stuart.
But the voice of John Hurt delivering the government’s brutal ‘Don’t Die of Ignorance’ message reminds us of the spectre that looms over party. Against this background of a fear campaigns, Mike graduates from calling bingo to taking over from an absent DJ, soon becoming the focus of the place he’s grown to love. He can’t imagine the tragedy that will soon strike the heart of his new-found family.
Roy Brandon and Eithne Browne are the life-blood of the club as the owner Frank and his stalwart bartender Norma. Frank’s hair drips the boot polish used to keep it black (think Dirk Bogarde in Death in Venice) and he does indeed drift about with the sandwiches, although there is something perplexingly starched about his delivery. Another Royal Court favourite Julie Glover puts in an understatedly dignified performance in the small but important role of Tony’s mum.
Adam McCoy and Daniel Waterhouse both give strong performances as Tony and Stuart, and both Lees’ writing for them and their treatment of it ensure that their characters, albeit flamboyant, never fall foul of becoming stereotypes. The biggest surprise of the evening (although probably not to the producers) is an exceptionally distinguished stage debut from Jamie Peacock as Mike. He is yet to begin his acting degree course at LIPA this autumn, and is surely a talent to watch out for. This is a challenging, vulnerable and brave role to launch a career, and Peacock carries it off with beautiful subtlety.
Whilst the show could do with tightening somewhat in pace, director Paul Goetzee holds his cast together in close ensemble and uses the space of the studio well, to make the cabaret style seating feel like part of the set.
Lees’ narrative certainly stirs very vivid memories for those of us who grew up gay in the 70s and 80s, but it’s not just about the nostalgia. She also creates an entertaining piece of theatre that documents an important and pivotal period in the growing up of the LGBT community, as it fought its way through events that threatened to shut it back in its closet for good. This should be staple fare for anyone joining this week’s Pride in Liverpool.