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What it Means at Wilton’s Music Hall | Review

In 1970, one year after New York’s Stonewall Riots between police and gay activists, Harper’s Magazine publishes the article “Homo/hetero: the struggle for sexual identity”. Merle Miller, former editor of the magazine, is so incensed by it that he writes the essay he has been avoiding writing for a long time: What it means to be a Homosexual, which is published in the New York Times Magazine. It has been described as the most widely read and discussed article of the decade and was published by Penguin under the title ‘On Being Different‘.

What it Means at Wilton's Music Hall
What it Means at Wilton’s Music Hall. Credit Danny Kaan

Fifty years on, British writer James Corley has developed this into a 95-minute monologue which is currently being staged at Wilton’s Music Hall.

This production has the advantage of an imaginatively designed set by Justin Arienti, cleverly linking the two levels of the stage by a large dark grey rostrum that blends smoothly into a rear wall with an entrance and into four wide steps that lead to the forestage. This gives the actor, Richard Cant, a variety of spaces for him and the director to use. Believable 1970s furniture has been sourced as have period props and costumes, giving the piece every chance.

Cant must be congratulated on this feat of learning and his approach to the role which together mean that he is totally believable in the role, even if what he has to say is often convoluted and meandering. Miller’s eyesight was poor and the way Cant uses his black-rimmed spectacles as if they are part of his character is very clever, if irritating! Vocally, too, he has caught the character of the author, even if, again, the voice becomes annoying after a while, as presumably intended.

I have used the term ‘monologue’ above because Cant/Miller addresses the audience almost throughout – perhaps “rants” is a more accurate word, but in fact, Corley introduces another character in the final ten minutes, when suddenly the piece comes alive and morphs into a real piece of drama. Cayvan Coates, who plays the boy from Pittsburgh, seventeen years old, is superb in the role, immediately creating a believable young person and inspiring Cant to produce the most effective and emotionally moving few minutes of the production.

Director Harry Mackrill has attempted to give the piece some much-needed structure and variety of pace, mood and action but What it Means would be improved and made more powerful by some judicious pruning of some of the more repetitive scenes.

Rather fussy lighting design is by Martha Godfrey and subtle, realistic sound has been imaginatively created by Beth Duke.

Very few members of the audience would have been old enough to have been alive in the early 1970s – I wonder how many have read Merle Miller’s “What It Means to be a Homosexual” and how many will now be inspired to go and read it!

3 Star Review

Review by John Groves

Come into the world of legendary writer Merle Miller, for 90 minutes you’ll laugh, cry and be in awe as he changes history in the ultimate queer fever dream.

September 1970. A year after the Stonewall Riots, Harper’s Magazine publish the now notorious article ‘Homo/hetero: the struggle for sexual identity’. Acclaimed journalist and former editor of Harper’s, Merle Miller reads the article from his home in upstate New York and decides to take a stand.

What It Means
presented by Nisha Oza for The Lot Productions

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  • John Groves

    John Groves studied singing with Robert Easton and conducting with Clive Timms. He was lucky enough to act in the British premiere of a Strindberg play at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe more years ago than he cares to remember, as well as singing at the Royal Opera House - once! He taught drama and music at several schools, as well as examining the practical aspects of GCSE and A level drama for many years. For twenty five years he has conducted a brass band as well as living on one of the highest points of East Sussex surrounded by woodland, deer, foxes and badgers, with kites and buzzards flying overhead.

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