Theatre Review: CAMP (Seymour Centre, Sydney) ★★★1/2

CAMP, a new play by Elias Jamieson Brown, chronicles the rise of the Australian Pride movement through the women who fought through their pain and losses to win us the freedoms we enjoy today. It’s a decades spanning tale, elevating Australia’s own Gay Liberation story, just in time for Sydney WorldPride 2023.

Sydney, in the shadow of the Vietnam War, is on the brink of societal changes it can’t predict. A young mother, Jo, is torn from her family because she is a lesbian. Young girl Tracey is sent to a psychiatric hospital for her “deviancy”. Activist Krissy is proud to stand firm and fight for her rights. Together their stories weave a tapestry of the birth of CAMP, the Campaign Against Moral Persecution, Australia’s first openly LGBTQ+ organisation, in the 1970s.

Tamara Natt and Lou McInnes in CAMP. Photo: Alex Vaughan

Our understanding of the fight for Queer Liberation and Pride has understandably often been seen through a USA-centric lens. The Stonewall Riots were the birth of a global movement, not just an American one, but how that spark took hold in different countries is often unexplored. Who were the local heroes who fought for changes in their own countries? How was the fight for LGBTQ+ rights waged in different cultures and environments? While Stonewall is never mentioned, its shadow is felt.

The characters in CAMP may be fictionalised, they are mainly based on real people. CAMP co-founder John Ware and gay activist Lex Watson—who famously had shit thrown at him, literally, during a televised public forum in 1976—are amalgamated into the character of Dave. The work of co-founder Christabel Poll is merged into the character of Krissy. Through these characters, Brown has created a personal story of young people fighting to claim their space in society and live their lives free from persecution and shame.

This fictionalised retelling of the story of CAMP takes us from a chance meeting in a pub, through real life events, before jumping forward to the 21st century to see how the lives of these pioneers have developed, and then back again. It touches on CAMP services such as Phone-A-Friend counselling and the prominent media appearances by its founders. This nonlinear structure isn’t entirely successful and feels oddly inserted—almost as if there was meant to be an interval that never happened—leading to some double-casting that caused me some momentary confusion.

Jane Phegan and Tamara Natt in CAMP. Photo: Alex Vaughan

A strong ensemble adds the emotional depth required to bring the story to life. I was blown away by Jane Phegan’s performance as the younger Krissy. Earthy and nuanced, she embodied some the 70s lesbian activist sterotypes, while also filling the cracks with real humanity and character. Tamara Natt and Genevieve Moody nailed their performances as the younger and older Jo, the emotional spine of the play. Around them, the whole cast brings their A-game.

Vitally, CAMP starts to plug a conspicuous gap in exploring Australia’s national queer story. Australia’s own history of Pride is as complex and fraught as many other nations, and it’s almost shameful that most Aussies, myself included, know more about the LGBTQ+ history of the United States or the UK than about Australia’s own.

By Chad Armstrong

CAMP receives its World Premiere at Seymour Center from February 15th – March 4th, 2023 as part of Sydney WorldPride. Click here for tickets and more information.

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