Above the Stag is a theatre that specialises in putting on LGBT+ shows. I’ve been there a couple of times previously and seen some very well produced and very funny plays about gay life. So, I was really looking forward to another visit last night to see their latest show, the European premiere of Southern Baptist Sissies by Del Shores.
This is the story of four people emerging from childhood and becoming adults. These boys are all from the great state of Texas – the ‘buckle’ in the bible belt – and all are regular attendees at their small town Baptist church presided over by a real old fashioned ‘wrath of God’ style preacher (Stephen Parker). The four boys are all really good friends who each bring something different to the group. So, there is preacher’s son Mark (Jason Kirk) the thinker, TJ (Daniel Klemens) the brawn, Andrew (Hugh O’Donnell) the introverted and the quartet is completed by the flamboyant Benny (James Phoon). Ah yes, speaking of flamboyant, the boys have something else in common, they are all gay. In a fundamental Baptist town, this is of course a sin, possibly the biggest sin – although being of another religion comes close – and the boys have to hide their true selves and each Sunday dutifully turn up to church, along with Mark’s mother (Janet Prince) to hear the words of the Lord and be reminded that unless they repent ALL their sins, then when they die it’s a one way trip to hell for an eternity of wailing and gnashing of teeth for each of them.
Over in the local gay bar – yes there is one – sit two old barflies, Preston “Peanut” LeRoy (Don Cotter) a fifty something gay man and his friend Odette (Julie Ross) a woman who has gone through a lot of individual events that she doesn’t want to talk about just now. The two of them drink, and chat, and watch the handsome stripper in his glistening trunks, drink and be entranced by the bar’s marvelous drag queen – Iona – or just drink while listening to Simon David playing tunes from a bygone era as the day fades away.
A righteous preacher, his obedient flock, two old people that have seen too much over their lives and four boys on the verge of becoming men. Everything is set for an explosive story of lust, love fear, guilt, acceptance and heartache.
Del Shores has penned a really top notch story with Southern Baptist Sissies and unfortunately, it’s not entirely a work of fiction. The USA, in certain areas, has an abundance of preachers like the one portrayed in the play, and every day, there are stories of gay children being abandoned by their family and becoming outcasts in their own communities simply for being who they were born to be. Despite all the strides in LGBT+ rights made over the years, there are still those on the religious right who will happily condemn their own people citing Leviticus 18, whilst cheerfully ignoring all the other items banned by Leviticus and the bible. Southern Baptist Sissies really illustrates this superbly. All four boys go through various stages where their religious teachings come into conflict with their sexual orientation. In some cases the reaction is extreme. For example, and without giving too much away, the relationship between TJ and Mark resonated for me in a very personal way. Even Benny, outwardly the most assured and comfortable with his sexuality occasionally has doubts that just maybe the teachings – or indoctrination – he has been brought up on may possibly be right and it is him that is wrong. Del Shores has brought all of these doubts and fears together and found a really great way of expressing them, both verbally – with the character of Mark being a great narrator – and physically – in the actions of the various characters – such as Andrew and TJ – as they face their inner demons. Powerfully written with humour and real emotion, Southern Baptist Sissies is an amazing story and I have to acknowledge Del has introduced me to my new favourite line in a play “I’m a social drinker. You have a drink and so shall I!”. Lovely writing.
Turning to the production and even before it started, Southern Baptist Sissies had a real wow factor for me. David Shields’ set, is complex and somehow fits in a church, bar and home/office onto the stage without it looking too crowded and leaving enough room for the actors to move around without falling over each other or the scenery. Given the amount of space available, this was a miracle in itself. Director Gene David Kirk has assembled a fantastic team of actors to bring the characters to life in an awesome fashion. I would love to write a full description of all of them but there isn’t space here so let’s just go for a couple that really stood out for me. Firstly Janet Prince who played three, very different, mothers. Although not a massive role, Janet really did make each mother a living, breathing individual and – again no spoilers – as the third mother she was absolutely brilliant. Similarly, Stephen Parker’s preacher was spot on. A man, so imbued with his mission that he claimed his Anti-Easter Bunny sermon was God speaking through him. Even at the end, when anyone else would have looked around and realised they had a level of responsibility for the events that occurred, the preacher showed a lack of self-awareness that was astounding and congrats to Stephen for making such a loathsome figure so human. Looking at the boys, and just as the four seasons are different but are required to make the year complete, so the four actors playing Mark, Andrew, TJ and Benny were individuals who together built a team that could take on the world. Daniel Klemens’ TJ was sublime. A young man who didn’t want to be who he was because he ‘knew’ it was wrong, Daniel made TJ such a recognisable figure that, as he went off to a life that wasn’t really his, you just wanted to jump up and protect him from himself. I have a feeling that next time I see James Phoon will be on “RuePaul’s Drag Race” because he really was amazing as drag queen Iona – who did a stunning Tina Turner impression in the second act. Finally, Hugh O’Donnell as Andrew is a gentle performance of the quietest of the four boys but Hugh is so amazing that he makes a little dialogue go a long way and relies on his pure stage presence to get Andrew’s thoughts and feelings across to the audience.
I could mention everyone but really need to move on to my summary. Southern Baptist Sissies is a sure fire hit from start to finish. This is a story that will resonate with many people, both within and outside of the LGBT+ community. A tale of internal conflict that has everything right. Powerful writing, beautiful production and fantastic acting combined and although there are often standing ovations at a press night, this was the first time that the audience pretty much rose as one clapping, their hands whilst wiping away the tears. Emotional, poignant and thought-provoking Southern Baptist Sissies really does have it all. My final word – Awesome!
Review b y Terry Eastham
Southern Baptist Sissies is the unforgettable story of four boys growing up gay in a religious community in Dallas, Texas.
Del Shores’ hilarious, wildly imaginative and moving play follows their lives from eight years old to adulthood as they veer between friendship, sex and estrangement.
Written by Del Shores From 8 March 2017
Directed by Gene David Kirk Tuesday – Saturday 7.30pm
Designed by David Shields Sunday 6.00pm
Lighting Design by Chris Withers Bookings: www.abovethestag.com
Produced by Peter Bull for Above The Stag Theatre
Arch 17 Miles Street
London SW8 1RZ