I don’t think I ever come across so many video clips of past performances in a single-performer show since seeing Barry Humphries’ The Man Behind the Mask. Humphries’ career, however, stretches back to the 1950s – Rob Madge, who came out as non-binary to their mother, and to their Twitter following, in February 2021, tells their audience they were a test tube baby, born in 1996. That there are so many clips of childhood memories is at least partly on their insistence – one set of compilation clips consists entirely of various iterations of requests and instructions (mostly the latter) to Madge’s parents, to film them. Perhaps if they were to live their childhood again now, they’d be forever taking selfies.
The show is, by its own admission, more than a little narcissistic, or to put it another way, stagey – though I am compelled to take issue with Madge’s assertion that the show is all about them, given the many (justified) references to their parents, grandparents and other family members. The school experience wasn’t exactly an encouraging one for Madge, with damning indictments on their creative interests in the form of bullies – and teachers. Certain members of staff had reasoned that the only friends Madge was making were imaginary ones in the play area, and if they would get their heads out of the clouds, the bullying would stop. In other words, they’ve made their bed, so they can lie in it.
That said, it’s a struggle to see this narrative, in the end, as a triumph over adversity story, because their family was so incredibly supportive. Labours of love took ‘weeks and weeks’, and then, in subsequent years, ‘months and months’, creating costumes, props and set pieces for RDM Productions, Madge’s at-home stage company. More video clips later, their dedication and commitment to getting it right becomes a mixture of frustration for Madge (seemingly both then and now) and hilarity for the audience, as we see their relatives’ failure to help them achieve their desire to recreate Disney productions without a Disney budget.
This perfectionism, if I can call it that, spills over into this very production – having had previous runs at the Turbine Theatre, the Edinburgh Fringe and the Garrick Theatre, this residency at the Ambassadors is an extremely slick one: if there were any errors at the performance I attended, they weren’t noticeable. Madge’s rapport with their audience is nothing short of magnificent, with comebacks and responses on a par with a seasoned panto performer. Pippa Cleary’s songs are a delight to listen to, and they, like the rest of the story, elicit a wide range of emotions, hitting euphoric highs and plumbing the depths of the most difficult moments in Madge’s past.
Madge’s knowledge of the theatre world even as a child was impressive – an at-home Christmas Day production had, as part of its preparation, a meticulously prepared rehearsal schedule, including tech and dress. It’s adorable as much as it is admirable. Lovers of musical theatre will find plenty of unsubtle references to various shows, though the story is still easy to follow for anyone who can count the number of musicals they’ve seen on one hand.
This show may not have the long-lasting misery and woe of some queer stories of previous generations, but this only serves to underline how far things have come since then. There’s still some way to go, of course, but more than ever, the possibilities for people to be themselves – whatever that may be – are limitless. An inspiring, poignant and joyous celebration of life beyond the binary, this show affirms the unconditional support of parents and carers who really do love their own, no matter what.
Review by Chris Omaweng
When Rob was 12, they attempted to stage a full-blown Disney parade in their house for their grandma. As Rob donned a wig and played Mary Poppins, Ariel, Mickey Mouse and Belle, their dad doubled as Stage Manager, Sound Technician and Goofy.
Unfortunately, Dad missed all his cues and pushed all the floats in the wrong direction. Mum mistook Aladdin for Ursula. The costumes went awry. Ariel’s bubble gun didn’t even work properly. Grandma had a nice time though.
Bill Kenwright and Paul Taylor-Mills present
MY SON’S A QUEER (BUT WHAT CAN YOU DO?)
Written and performed by ROB MADGE
Directed by Luke Sheppard (& Juliet, In the Heights); Songs by Pippa Cleary (The Great British Bake Off Musical, The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Age 13 ¾); Set and costume design by Ryan Dawson Laight; Video design by George Reeve; Lighting design by Jai Morjaria; Sound design by Tingying Dong; Orchestrations by Simon Nathan
25 January – 18 March 2023
West Street, London WC2H 9ND
My Son’s A Queer, (But What Can You Do?) at Ambassadors Theatre