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Birthmarked Assembly Rooms (Ballroom), Edinburgh

A thoroughly engaging story from start to finish, this gig theatre show follows the story of Brook Tate, ‘disfellowshipped’ by the Jehovah’s Witnesses at the age of 23, because he wouldn’t ‘repent’ for being gay. Not even being allowed to deal with the trappings of a certain religion might be bliss for some people, and in some respects it was for Tate, except the rest of his family, still in the Jehovah’s Witnesses (all except one), were under strict instructions never to have anything to do with him ever again. No calls, no texts, no exchanges of pleasantries should they happen to be at the supermarket at the same time.

Birthmarked, credit to Paul Blakemore.
Birthmarked, credit to Paul Blakemore.

He had, up until being disfellowshipped, had good relations with his family, so it was a painful split, and he moved from Hastings to Bristol, forming a band. It was while he was on an overseas mission for the Jehovah’s Witnesses that he kissed a fellow male JW, which led to a bit more activity than kissing, but the next day his fellow missionary reverted to JW type, and refused to discuss what happened.

To tell his story, he encounters Gayle the Whale (Eva Redman), descended from the lineage of Moby Dick, whose dry sense of humour was a good contrast to Tate’s own Alan Carr-esque camp personality. A conversation with a whale is an absurdist element derived from the biblical account of Jonah, who deliberately boarded a ship going in the opposite direction to where God told him to go, so there was a huge storm that could only be quelled by throwing Jonah overboard, and then he is swallowed by a ‘big fish’ (English language biblical translations do not invariably use the word ‘whale’). Tate draws a parallel between that story and his own, having been chucked out of the JW ‘ship’. Gayle is depicted by way of a huge puppet, which takes pride of place upstage to allow Redman herself to play the drum kit.

Elsewhere, Tate’s transformation into a zebra by a combination of face paint and costumes takes place entirely on stage, all while he continues to tell his story. The show’s title partly comes from an actual birthmark on Tate’s forehead – he once had long enough hair such that it wasn’t noticeable. The rest of the on-stage band are Tom Bonson, Samuel Fox, Eddie Benfield and Sam Fox (not a typo – there were, as Tate pointed out, “two Sam Foxes”). There’s such a charming warmth to Tate’s persona that I wonder if he’s one of those people the late Robin Williams talked about in reference to those who have been in dark places wanting to make other people happy, “because they know what it feels like to feel absolutely worthless and they don’t want anybody else to feel like that”.

Tate’s is the kind of story not often told, and the reasons for that become evident in the narrative, and while it is a unique tale told in a unique manner, it is also in line with many Edinburgh Fringe shows this year about triumph over severe adversity. It’s passionate, it’s ultimately uplifting, and it deserves a London transfer.

5 Star Rating

Review by Chris Omaweng

Birthmarked tells the true story of Brook’s experiences growing up as a Jehovah’s Witness until he was disfellowshipped at the age of 23 because of his sexuality. In a faith that believes Armageddon is imminent, homosexuals will be destroyed, and everyone believes in ‘The Truth’, a young Witness experiences turmoil and pain before discovering his own truth. This funny and moving semi-improvised show follows Brook as he finds the strength to take a leap into the unknown, and shines a light on what it means to be marked… at birth.

Writer / Composer / Performer Brook Tate
Electric Keyboard / Violin Eddie Benfield
Electric Guitar / Banjo Tom Bonson
Electric Bass / Upright Bass / Vocals Samuel Fox
Trumpet / percussion Junior Nascimento
Drums / Gayle the Whale Eva Redman
Director Sally Cookson
Designer Max Johns
Lighting Designer Jai Morjaria
Musical Director John O’Hara
Puppetry Director Chris Pirie
Dramaturg Marietta Kirkbride
Costume Supervisor Sophia Khan
Outside Eye Travis Alabanza
Production Manager Ed Borgnis
Stage Manager Rachel Bell
Producer Hannah Smith
Artist Wellbeing Practitioner Nikki Disney, The Artist Wellbeing Company

Assembly Rooms (Ballroom), 54 George Street, Edinburgh, EH2 2LR
Wednesday 3rd – Sunday 27th August 2023

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