Queer Fest

A brand new theatre festival, showcasing new queer writing in Oxford, in a collaboration between Oxford Playhouse and Pegasus Theatre.
Oxford Playhouse, Thu 20 June - Sat 22 June 2024

July 4, 2024
I, Victor and The Invert: A Seductive Piece of Special Pleading


I, Victor lifts its body-reassembling concept from Frankenstein, but the resemblances largely end there, and that's for the best. Issy Flowers' piece of new writing is wholly fresh and deliberately uncomfortable.

The piece is largely a one-person show, focused on Vic, a fairly ordinary queer 20-something, turned feckless serial killer after the death of their secret girlfriend. Vic plots to build their deceased lover a new body. Played with a decisive flair by Ellis Jupiter, we follow them through a string of evenings and dates, from meet-cute to murder and beyond as we listen to them navel-gaze as they dissect the bodies.

There is an unflinching boldness to Flower’s writing, which engages and compels the audience, but occasionally drifts into being gross-out and provocative.The problem is, as soon as you feel a show is trying deliberately to provoke you, it dulls the effect. Vic is seemingly performing for the audience, impulsively licking spilled blood and caressing their victims’ limbs with a cool appraisal, flaunting the grotesque-ry of their actions.

That said, Vic is convincingly written as the gleeful, grandiose sociopath. Where the writing wobbles is when it tries simultaneously to humanize its protagonist, making the character then wretch with disgust about what they're doing from time to time, and become overcome with a pure, unselfish grief for their lost girlfriend. Because Vic’s actions prior to this read as exhibitionism rather than raw desperation, the tone shifts to sincerity feel jarring and unconvincing.

The character’s mercurial and preening energy could have been illuminated by seeing them in conversation with other actors. Part of the issue here is tasking Jupiter with acting out Vic’s encounters with their victims completely on their own (although their acting here is humorous and true-to-life, never short of entertaining). In the play’s final scene, we get to see Jupiter with a real scene partner (played by Flowers) and it allows Vic’s disjointed characterization to finally meld into one multilayered performance.

A voice over for the two person scenes could work equally well as having another physical performer onstage, as I can appreciate the fitting claustrophobia that having a solo actor delivers. The show already gets inventive with sound design in places, with squishy, scraping, wet sounds of dissection as Vic pulls bodies apart. There’s a large plastic-covered table center stage used for this, and I desperately wanted the action to take place behind it, rather than mimed atop it, which would have then employed the audience's imagination in creating the effects. There’s a noir-ish glow to the props and costumes, all leather and neon, which is splendid. There is also a few playful, striking uses of lighting that really enriched the piece too, and made me wish for more. I think this is a production that could benefit from leaning hard into its sensory elements, underpinning the violent vividness of its script with equally punishing design choices.

The piece has lots to say about lesbian shame and erasure. I wondered if the way the script weaves a certain intimacy into Vic’s slayings was meant to parallel how queer sex has historically been treated as a crime itself. I would hope this could be clarified further in a future version of the show.

Ultimately, the swing between icy exhibitionism and raw emotion doesn’t always convince, and the final line felt a bit like it came out of nowhere, but the freshness of Flowers’ writing and Jupiter’s committed performance seduces. With some screws tightened and colours intensified, this will be an iconic piece of queer theatre and future cult classic.

The Invert: A Seductive Piece of Special Pleading

I had certain expectations for The Invert: A Seductive Piece of Special Pleading, a work-in-progress by Found Theatre, which dramatizes the obscenity trial of lesbian author Radclyffe Hall’s 1928 novel The Well of Loneliness. The title struck me as overlong and self-serious and the poster, which featured a black and white photograph of a woman staring solemnly down the camera lens, led me to believe the show would be arduously bleak. Thankfully, the show swiftly disproved my concerns.

Formatted largely as a courtroom drama, the play makes amusing use of audience participation, calling us up as jury members and special experts, highlighting the profound lack of qualifications needed to rule on whether LGBTQIA+ people deserve equality. In doing so, the play implicitly comments on and parallels present day rollbacks of trans rights, and shows how much and how little has changed in nearly a century.

The Well of Loneliness was the subject of critical outrage at the time of its publication, and some reviews are broadcast over the speakers, including the infamous quote from James Douglas, a critic for the Sunday Express, in which he says "I would rather give a healthy boy or a healthy girl a phial of prussic acid than this novel” which always struck me as an exceptionally vicious and telling, and is echoed in other reviews. Critics could have compared the work to trash or excrement, but they chose poison, because they knew it was dangerously convincing and humanising.

Which is to say, the fear-mongering and disgust lobbed at the text is not due to any truly obscene or pornographic material, which this show cleverly makes clear by dramatizing the offending scene (two actors play Hall’s characters, reciting and rephrasing their words as Hall rewrites them), where one line merely alludes to something un-platonic taking place.

The engine that powers this production is Radclyffe herself, played by a hugely compelling Sarah Cameron-West. Never bitter or despairing, Hall is presented here as galvanised and luminously hopeful, adamant that her lawyer must not defend the book by denying its lesbian themes, which she is unapologetic about. I could easily watch a full-length play about her.

Costi Levy’s writing and Lily Sheldon’s direction have an effervescent beauty that brings the audience into Hall’s struggle. The Invert is very much a work in progress, with a thirty minute runtime that leaves the verdict unrevealed, but leaves the audience wanting more. I think as it develops its power will only compound further, culminating in something truly poignant, powerful and bittersweet. It’s a real treat to see exciting new theatre develop in real time thanks to the inaugural Queer Fest, which I hope will return for another year.

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