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Queer Counsel pleads a difficult case - but one that is well worth experiencing

Review by David Munro

QUEER Counsel is basically a play about loss. Loss of faith, loss of innocence, loss of hope and, most terrible of all, loss or lack of understanding leading to a loss of life.

It sets out to show the effect the suicide of a 16-yearold boy, Mathew (Darren Cheek) had on his family, and on the man, Gary (Laurence Saunders), whose failure to recognize his need caused his death.

Based on a real incident, it focuses on John (Tim Charrington), the boy's father, who seeks to compensate for his failure to understand his son by setting up a counselling practice for homosexuals.

A deeply religious man, whose life is regulated by the Bible, he tries to convert those who seek his help to what he considers the ways of Christianity, and make them forswear their sexuality, rather than helping them come to terms with it.

His rigid beliefs and blinkered attitude to life was, as he comes to realise, one of the main factors in his son's suicide and the realisation causes him to lose his faith, at least temporarily.

The play is ambiguous on this point. Whether his bigoted attitude stems from his attempt to repress his own homosexuality is a moot point.

Discussing the play with the author, Nick Bamford, I raised this point, but he maintains that this was not his intention when delineating the character, but it is still a reading of the character which, to me, at least, could explain his attitude to life and to those who sought his help.

His wife, Mary, played with great sympathy by Alison Belbin, takes a more prosaic view of her son's situation.

Her wish is to understand what caused him to take his life and not to judge those concerned in the tragedy.

To achieve this, she seeks out Gary, whom she realises, from her son's diaries, was the man with whom he fell in love, and whose failure to reciprocate his love caused him to jump from Clifton Suspension Bridge.

Gary is a complex character; seemingly in a relationship with David (Richard Sandells), he seeks gratification in anonymous sex and during one of these quests, he meets Mathew, initiates him into gay sex at the boy's own insistence, and then rejects him.

The knowledge of his failure to the boy, drives him to seek the help of John, not apparently realising that John is Mathew's father, even though he knew of Mathew's overweening Christian beliefs and the guilt instilled in him by his father.

Mary draws the threads of the plot together by arranging a memorial meeting on Clifton Bridge, reconciling Mathew's brother, Luke, who had left home due to his brother's death, with John; and John, rather half-heartedly with Gary and himself.

Along with the central theme, there is a subplot concerning Daniel (William Gregory), whom John fails to convert to the straight and narrow way of Christianity and Gary's relationship with David, which seeks to delve into the sub-culture of the gay life of Bristol.

All the characters, other than John, forgather from time to time at a gay pub run by Trevor (Richard Curnow), who acts as a camp father confessor to all and sundry, underlining the leitmotif of the play - that gays need help and understanding, not proselyting.

It is a strong play, parts of which many might find offensive, but it is written with such sincerity that one is forced to realise that the more sensational and sordid aspects of gay life, which are very explicitly shown, are included not for shock value, but to illustrate, without comment or criticism, what gay life entails, and why gays need to seek help and understanding from third parties.

Which do-gooders of John's calibre fail to give them: another loss, in this case of compassion and humanity.

Were the play not so well written and well acted, as it is, one could dismiss it as just another gay play, which it is not.

It is a play about gays, but they are used to fuel the argument that being good is not of itself sufficient, to help, one must understand and only with understanding comes acceptance.

A very simple concept, but one, as this play shows, which is all too often overlooked.

Mathew's death, in many ways, brought the characters closer together and made them face facts about their own lives which, in turn, made them more sympathetic to each others' problems.

All this does not make for a comfortable evening in the theatre but it is, nonetheless, a rewarding one.

The author has a case to state and his Queer Counsel successfully pleads it.

The judgement is left to the audience - go to the Warehouse, Croydon and draw your own conclusions. I think you will agree that it is an experience worth experiencing.

Queer Counsel, by Nick Bamford.
Director, Rob Swinton; Designer, Chris de Wilde; Lighting, James Whiteside; Sound, Matt Evans.
CAST: Laurence Saunders; Richard Sandells; William Gregory; Tim Charrington; Alison Belbin; Darren Cheek; Richard Curnow.
Producer F.O.D. Productions.
Warehouse Theatre, Dingwall Road, East Croydon.
April 14 - May 9, 2004. Tues 6.30pm,
Wed - Sat 8pm, Suns 5pm. Box Office: 020 8680 4060.

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