Theatre Review: Queer Upstairs (Royal Court, London)

When the Royal Court Theatre, London’s famed incubator of theatrical writing, held a town hall meeting of staff, Artistic Director Vicki Featherstone asked the team “What do you want to see more of on our stages?” The result was Queer Upstairs, a relaxed evening of rehearsed readings.

The aim was to bring more LGBTQ+ stories to the front of the Royal Court’s output and honour the 50th anniversary of Stonewall. Six new short works were commissioned in March, and quickly developed, under the eye of playwright Mark Ravenhill and Hester Chillingworth. Taking place in the Royal Court’s intimate upstairs space, the audience packed in, on chairs, beanbags, cushions and carpet to see the results.

The six pieces on show may have started with the inspiration of Stonewall, but the end results took us through stories of parenthood, racism, class and an exploration of the binary life of AI.

The assembled playwrights (Rachael Young, Nick Bruckman, Lettie Precious, Iman Queshi, Rebecca Prichard and Chillingworth), in creating queer-centric tales showed, more than anything, the universality of our fears, hopes and struggles. Their pieces were read by a troupe of actors: Fisayo Akinade, Babirye Bukilwa, Mariah Louca, Ashley McGuire, Luke Newberry and Lara Rossi. With stage directions by Mariah Louca.

Personal stand outs were Lettie Precious’ ‘The Grey Area’, read by Babirye Bukilwa and Luke Newberry, a tale of two jobseekers, both facing down assumptions about their character whose encounter with a homeless man changes their world. While it definitely felt the start of a larger piece, it was a satisfying chunk of story that left me wanting more.

The other stand out was Chillingworth’s cast-free ‘Artificial Intelligence’ featuring a computerised voice exploring its own identity to great comic effect. A terrific look at the concept of ‘binary’ and ‘non-binary’ laced with humour.

The Royal Court has been the home of a number of great queer stories over the years, like Ravenhill’s ‘Shopping and Fucking’, Kevin Elyot’s ‘My Night With Reg’ and John Donnelly’s ‘The Pass’. It’s great to see these nuggets of new stories growing and it will be intriguing to see where they go from here.

By Chad Armstrong

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