Love Song to Lavender Menace is a heart-warming tribute to ‘Lavender Menace’, a real-life lesbian, gay and radical feminist bookshop which opened on Edinburgh’s Forth Street in 1982, against the backdrop of Thatcher’s homophobic reign and subsequent underground queer publishing.
The play takes place on the eve of Lavender Menace’s closure in 1997, when sales assistants Lewis (Pierce Reid) and Glen (Matthew McVarish) decide to re-enact the founding of the bookshop to honour the ways in which it has influenced the queer Scottish community. This leads onto a meta-play where the two characters themselves act as founders Sigrid Neilson and Bob Orr, as well as a few side characters.
Humour propels the play, and random book-falling onstage is only a minor example of this. Highlights include Reid’s delightful physical acting, which has the audience erupt with laughter, naturally endearing the audience to Lewis. Lewis’ over-the-top mannerisms are contrasted with Glen’s serene mollycoddling and reassurance of him, and it later becomes clear that although Lewis is a well-read, anti-Capitalist queer man, he’s also an insecure and exhausted person in need of comfort. He’s shown to be tired by non-stop fighting to claim back what’s always being taken away from him. He makes references to queer friends he’s lost through HIV, and there’s a sadness underlying the light-hearted play, which captures what it’s like to be a queer person in the 80s: the fear of trudging through a life unsupported by the government and medical services, combined with the joy of finding your own queer community.
‘Fire Island,’ a gay nightclub that used to be on Princes Street, was one of the ways in which queer people in 80s Edinburgh found each other. The play shows that Fire Island was also a significant starting point for Lavender Menace, as it was here that Bob and Sigrid met each other, selling queer books.
Further references are made to 80s queer Edinburgh life, such as the openly anti-Thatcher sentiments of queer Scots. This was a direct result of her introducing Section 28, a law described in the play as banning anything that promoted homosexuality, including publication of materials and teaching in school. This led to the underground publishing of queer books by companies such as Gay Men’s Press and the Women’s Press. Lavender Menace’s role in the queer Scottish community is therefore significant, as it placed these books out in the open, for the public to see. The bookshop embodied the meaning of Pride, in its rebellious, radical determination to go against the law to make queer people visible.
The books on the shelves that make up the set are made visible in varying degrees throughout the development of the play. The number of visible books, therefore, acts as an indication of time, winding down towards the bookshop’s closure. The audience is made to feel sad, watching the inevitable closure of not only the bookshop but also of a chapter of Lewis and Glen’s lives, leaving the audience feeling as uncertain as the characters are about what the future holds for the two of them.
The audience watches this in the Royal Lyceum in Edinburgh, all too aware that the bookshop no longer exists in this city. However, Love Song to Lavender Menace keeps its legacy alive and is therefore a must-see for those who want to celebrate and remember the queer legacies that continue to shape today.
GUEST REVIEWER: Shin Woo Kim