Gone Off is a show dedicated to the history and vibrancy of the LGBTQ social scene. In the last half a decade there has been a gradual disintegration of iconic queer spaces and within the confines and aspirations of the show, the company behind the show, TOBYLikesMILK, seeks both to celebrate these spaces and also to highlight their historical significance and their resolute importance decades on from their naissance.
Hosted at The Cockpit in London, it was always going too be interesting to see how the company would link this studio theatre space to the queer spaces that are so integral to their production. And there are several moments that spark an introspective look as to how queer identity works in both these spaces and in the UK more broadly. TOBYLikesMILK seems to relish in the distinct British queer identity, and the aspect of it that celebrates unadulterated raucousness.
At two points in the play the audience is shown a clue into the origins of this distinct identity. These come from two separate times where one dancer is spotlighted, the music is dulled, and their breathing is accentuated. Held back by another performer, what is achieved is a portrayal of an identity being held back, unable to flourish no matter its dire need to be recognised. Contextually speaking, considering the UK’s history with homosexuality – officially a crime until 1967 – this is a moment of poignancy in which the context begins to affect the dancers, forcing them to hold in an identity for fear of persecution.
However, this is not all. Considering the aim of the production, the audience can plainly see that the social spaces Gone Off is celebrating were spaces where this identity did not need to be held back but it simultaneously laments their gradual loss. Looking both at the past and the present shows the audience that this loss is detrimental to queer identity in the UK – that these spaces and the flourishing of LGBTQ culture and inextricably bound to one another.
But this utilisation of the past and integration with the present is a real cornerstone to the whole production in regards to its style and movement. This production not only utilises elements of drag and vogue that were popular in such establishments in the 70s and 80s but it melds these in with a contemporary flow of movement that juxtaposes nicely with these earlier styles. At moments the audience is exposed to the bold, fearless expression of drag, or the confident, fluid femininity of vogue or even a fierce dynamism of more contemporary styles of dance from the realms hip hop and breaking. But in other moments there can be solemnity, thoughtfulness, and introspection expressed through the modernity of the performers’ movements that are thought provoking and act as a meaningful expression of the historical importance of queer club culture.
The music is an eclectic blend of old and new as well. Modern elements accompany most of the performance but when tunes from the past punctuate the performance occasionally, they are integrated well showing that the performance being staged in this moment is built upon the scene and the atmosphere of the past. This use of older music is implemented when the production breaks into a film portraying a brief exploration as to the importance of queer social scene to those who interact with it. While a sort of intermission, it does in fact allow for the company to utilise more of the space in the upper echelons of the theatre, further integrating the audience through its breakdown of the traditional boundaries of theatre spaces.
Throughout though, the performers’ movements are of paramount importance. The larger compositions with more dancers craft a synchronicity across groups within them in what I read as an attempt to reflect the unity of the diverse groups within the LGBTQ community. And this goes hand-in-hand with the stage’s lighting as it emphasises single dancers at some points only to open the stage up and welcome that lone dancer into a larger community. Or at another point where three male dancers are exposed to only dim light that barely illuminates them which while reflecting the perpetual darkness of clubs also reflects their occupation of a space that is slowly fading; slowly being left in the dark. It is only at the close of the show that the lighting illuminates the entire stage after a vibrant performance from all the dancers, which subsequently results in everyone kissing, showing the resilience and unity of the UK’s LGBTQ scene.
And while the majority of this has sounded quite serious thus far, this final moment is emblematic of the certain emphasis this show focuses on as to the permeating joy that this culture brings out in itself and in others. There is a self-awareness about it that means the performers bring an atmosphere of fun and almost playfulness. Be it in their lip-syncing or the more explosive moments that recreate modern club culture or even the aforementioned vogue and drag performances, the dancers really “own” the space and do everything they can to make sure the audience doesn’t forget that.
While Gone Off does indeed effectively lament the losses of queer club culture in London and, more broadly, the UK, it does nothing better than show the perks of the scene itself. Empowering its performers with a freedom of expression, and opportunities to bring their own personality to their performances, the show hopes to reignite everything it celebrates from the past, and proposes a myriad of reasons to be optimistic for the queer club scene in the future.
Gone Off was performed as part of the Camden Fringe from the 17th-19th August 2017.