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The Convert at the Above The Stag Theatre

It’s Pride month – when we concentrate on celebrating all aspects of the LGBT+ community with many big corporations ditching their normal logos and replacing them with rainbows showing their commitment to the support of the gays. Flags and parades abound, and all’s right with the LGBT+ world, isn’t it? Well no, it isn’t. Behind all the celebrations there are a small number of people that still believe being LGBT+ is wrong and that gay people can have their lives changed and be brought back to the straight and narrow using conversion therapy. Fortunately, they are in a minority but imagine what would happen if the state agreed with them, a terrifying idea that is explored in Ben Kavanagh’s play The Convert at the Above the Stag Theatre.

The ConvertAlix (Nick Mower) is a young gay man who has been taken to a state facility to be offered a chance to return to normality. And by normality, the state means that Alex has to give up his current lifestyle choice and become heterosexual. If he succeeds, then he can return to a world that will welcome him with open arms. If he fails, then he will be shipped off to the ‘Other Place’ from where nobody ever returns. All of this is explained to Alix in his orientation with his Arbiter (Ben Kavanagh). He also tells Alix that this facility will do everything it can to assist him in cleansing his thoughts and himself. It will not be easy but as long as Alix commits and complies, he can be, for want of a better word, saved. After his first session, Alix is left with little doubt as to the lengths the state will go to in order to ‘cure’ him. Bruised and bleeding, he goes to his dorm room where he meets his roommate Marcus (Sam Goodchild). Marcus has been in the facility for a long time, he’s not sure how long, and hopes to be in a position to be released soon. Marcus explains that the dormitory is not monitored, and the boys can talk freely there. In between his ‘correction’ sessions, Alix finds a sort of friend in Marcus who helps him cope. But ultimately when the full force of the state is being thrown at him, will Alix be able to retain his identity, or will he leave the institute as a normal, productive, and more important heterosexual member of society?

Conversion therapy is currently a very hot topic. Since 2018, the government has promised to ban it, then they change their mind, then they changed their mind again and will now be banning the practice except for trans people and in cases of people over eighteen if they’ve consented. Without getting too political, the word therapy is a misnomer designed to give legitimacy to an abhorrent practice. Conversion brainwashing or torture would be a more apt description and an outright ban is long overdue.

Ben Kavanagh has included conversion techniques that are actually used in the real world against LGBT+ people and it does not make for easy watching or reading. And he shows how, with the resources of the state, these ‘therapies’ could go so much further. Kavanagh’s story, which is dark, intense, and surprisingly funny in places, is just a little too close to being possible for comfort. I believe it is in many ways about relationships. In addition to the scenes with the Arbiter and Alix, we have the ones between Alix and Marcus. What’s interesting is that in both cases, a sort of friendship is built. I know that sounds unusual, but I got a real feeling that the Arbiter liked Alix and was doing what he was doing to help the boy. Just as a parent will chastise a child that reaches for an overhanging saucepan. They don’t necessarily enjoy it, but it’s needed to help the child understand how to not hurt themselves. Of course, the methods used are different but, from the Arbiter’s point of view, the reasoning is the same. In fact, of the three characters, the Arbiter was the one I most understood. Maybe, because he is a familiar figure. My immediate thought on the Arbiter was O’Brien from George Orwell’s ‘1984’. Intelligent, urbane, articulate and so convinced they are right that they will use any means possible to make you see things their way. Whilst not a physical torturer, the Arbiter knows when to attack the mind as well as the body in his quest to normalise Alix.

Alix himself is an everyman who knows who he is and sees nothing wrong in it. He has been betrayed by those he thought loved him because he is different but, unlike them, he accepts and revels in his difference and despite what he is being told, believes he cannot and should not change who he is and who he loves. Marcus is more of an enigma. All through the play I had trouble with him as a character. His motivation and ways of thinking confused me for a lot of the time until the last few minutes when I finally understood who and what he was – hint, it isn’t what you think. All three actors are really superb. And Nick Mower – making his professional stage debut – is amazing. I really felt for him throughout and suffered along with him as he went through his ‘treatment.’ By the way full credit to whoever did the make-up on Mower and Goodchild which told so much about what went on in the institute without having to show it.

There is much to praise in this production. David Shields’ wonderful set makes fantastic use of George Reeve’s video design – worth taking your seat early just to read up on conversion therapy techniques – and along with the lighting and sound, Joseph Ed Thomas and Paul Gavin respectively, creates the two locations used for the story and gives Director Gene David Kirk a lot of scope to bring every aspect of it to life.

Let’s start this summary by saying that The Convert is not the usual sort of play you associate with Above the Stag – in fact, I heard a few people make that comment during the interval – but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t see it. Personally, I’m still in two minds about my reaction to The Convert. As a seasoned reviewer, I’ve seen hundreds of plays and as a piece of theatre, The Convert was excellent. Well written, produced and acted, the show really delivered. However, as an LGBT+ person, I found myself emotionally connected to the story in a way I was not expecting. There were moments of pure horror – when I found myself thinking ‘there but for the grace of god go I’ and even now, I’m finding it hard to sperate Terry the reviewer from Terry the gay man which, with my reviewer’s hat on, really demonstrates the strength of every aspect of this outstanding production. The Convert is not an easy show to experience but its message about the use of conversion therapy to straighten LGBT+ people should be one that is passed on around the world until a complete ban is in place everywhere.

5 Star Rating

Review by Terry Eastham

Alix and Marcus have been brought to The Facility to be “corrected”. If their condition is cured they may leave and return to society. But if they fail, they will be sent to the Other Place, away from their friends and family forever. Failure is not an option, but in this confounding institution, where they only have each other, the greatest threat to their success is their own love.

Chillingly informed by real techniques that are used against LGBTQ+ people, Ben Kavanagh’s imaginative
and timely play pitches nightmarish forces against our unerasable, shining humanity.

Listings Information
Written by Ben Kavanagh
Directed by Gene David Kirk

Dates: 8 June – 3 July 2022
https://abovethestag.org.uk/

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