If chefs can have a signature dish, I suppose theatre companies can have signature plays. If so, Teatrolley is certainly the signature play of Consenting Adults in Public.
By 1981 we had been running workshops for well over a year at the Thornhill Neighbourhood Centre in Islington. There was a dozen or so actors coming to those and wanting to be involved in plays, rather than using drama to explore personal issues.
Actual attendance at the workshops was far higher, but more for personal development and among those people, turnover was higher.
We had done one triple bill to give scope to individual talents for Pride 1980 at ‘The George’ round the corner from Chapel Street Market. But those plays, The Madness of Lady Bright, Gasman and A Nice October Day, were the passion of individual performers rather than building coherence.
They also didn’t fit as comfortably as bespoke tailoring would. So I wrote two plays, one for the women and one for the men: Seesaw and Teatrolley, or a Midsummer Night’s Scream. Teatrolley was sparked by an article in the old Gay Liberation Front magazine, Come Together, about a foray made by Camden GLF up to Hampstead Heath.
Frustrated by the lack of political awareness among ordinary gay men, the GLFers decided to go to the cruising ground on the Heath, confront the cruisers with the shallowness of their lifestyles, and preach the gospels of Gay Liberation and Coming Out.
The evening was a complete disaster. All the cruisers ran away, and after standing around in freezing weather for a couple of hours, many of the GLFers thought “What the Hell?” and decided to join in the cruising instead.
The best detail in the story was that the GLF people took a tea trolley with them onto the Heath to offer refreshment to the cruisers. To make sure they weren’t intimidating or mistaken for the police, they festooned the tea trolley with fairy lights.
Put yourself in the position of a gay man out looking for sex, and it’s hard to imagine anything scarier than a clattering tea trolley with winking lights charging at you, pushed by some very loud, stroppy and determined queens.
From this original basis Eric Presland, as he then was, fashioned Teatrolley, an hour-long Shakespearean fantasy based on A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The play is written in blank verse with four Capella songs and music by David Harrod.
Two GLF members, Peascod and Orangeblossom, visit Hampstead Heath with a tea trolley to convert the cruisers. They encounter two Clones, Pistachio and Neapolitano, whose relationship is breaking up and who are trying to spice it up with a dash of casual sex, a leather Queen, Gaspacho, and a policeman, Raspberry, who is trying to bump up his arrest rates with easy pickings in order to meet his targets.
Orangeblossom (an Impetuous Young Fairy) is priggish and patronising about the cruisers and sex in generally, while Peascod (a Wise Old Fairy) is more worldly. To teach Orangeblossom a lesson about life, he puts a magic potion in the tea urn, which will make the drinker fall in love with the first man he sees. But when all the other characters in turn drink from the urn, everything goes horribly wrong.
Reviews tended to focus on the stereotypes in the play, without considering why they were being used. But like most of Presland’s plays, it has an underlying moral theme.
Orangeblossom has to be taught a lesson that you can’t change human nature, the clones have to learn that a relationship must be worked at. The policeman is defeated, and the leather queen learns that pure sex is never purely sex.
The play is set on Hampstead Heath at midnight on Midsummer Night, so it seemed logical to present it in situ as a free Midsummer celebration at midnight. This we did in 1981, 1982 and 1992, as well as taking it to the Edinburgh Fringe in 1982, and a Community Centre in 1994.
The Greater London Council had only recently come under the control of a radical new socialist regime under Ken Livingstone. Many of us were startled in the early days of this to get unsolicited invitations to County Hall, where senior politicians such as Andy Harris invited us to make pitches for the services our communities needed.
It wasn’t a blank cheque, but the willingness and eagerness to engage took us by surprise since it wasn’t what we were used to. Top of the list was a Gay Centre which we got six years later and then frittered away. For Consenting Adults it was a modest grant for a part-time worker and some production seed money.
Emboldened by this, I wrote to ask for permission to do the play on the Heath, anticipating that the police could make trouble in an area they regularly swept for ‘goings-on’. The response was immediate and positive.
On the day, pausing only to give an interview to BBC local news, we staked out the natural amphitheatre at the entrance to the cruising ground with garden flares, giant candles with a life of well over an hour.
We went to leaflet in costume at the King William IV in Hampstead and The Black Cap at Camden Town. Then, as dusk drew in, we waited. Men striding purposefully towards fulfilment in the bushes stopped to ask us what the F*** we were doing there so we told them.
Best of all, a police car stopped and in best Plod Officialese demanded, “Do you have permission for this?”
“Yes”, I said, rather smugly, and held up the letter signed by the Head of Parks. The police wandered away, non-plussed.
At about 11.30 p.m. we could hear laughing crowds in the distance, drawing nigh. One by one cruisers popped shyly out of the bushes like little Thumpers as word spread. One of them was the singer and rights activist Tom Robinson.
By midnight there were some 200 people having a party as the cans of Kestrel changed hands. There was no amplification, but by dint of projection, some would say screaming, and some very fast action we held their attention.
Afterwards an extremely handsome Geordie biker offered to give a lift on his BMW to anyone going his way. A fight almost broke out among the cast for the privilege. I, alas, had to stay behind to clear up the mess as promised.
The presentation was so popular that it led to a series of four Heath Plays (see Consenting Adults) and an extra free performance every year on Clapham Common. By 1986, we were attracting over 1,000 people to each show and it became too big, rowdy and unwieldy to continue.
So the Health Plays came to a stop. When we revived it in 1992 we did take it to Clapham Common, but by then the GLC was gone, and responsibility for the Heath had been split between the City of London and Barnet, an arrangement so complex as to be impenetrable.
On Clapham Common (Lambeth side and labour-controlled), there were no bushes to get changed in, and as a result Keith, as the leather man, was forced to change from the back of the van. His beaming moons attracted a large number of hoots from passing motorists and one bus nearly swerved off the road.
The play continues to be both timeless and of the 1970s. People who saw it and who were also on the original GLF zap, commented on how true it was to the spirit of the time and it remains popular because, although it is a send-up of our absurdities, it is a very affectionate send-up.
Its message of redemption and acceptance of other ways of being is wise and humane:
In these days of culture wars, this is as relevant as ever.
Peter Scott-Presland (July 2021)
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