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Review: Goodbye '89 (VAULT Festival)

Review by Harry Bower

Scratch and sniff stickers. Blockbuster Video. The Sony Walkman. Ghostbusters. All things which were popular in the 1980s and are now remembered fondly. Perhaps not remembered as fondly as they should be are the thousands of brave activists who fought against the tidal wave of homophobia intensified due to the AIDS epidemic, which gained notoriety throughout the eighties. That’s the period which Goodbye ’89 aims to bring back to life. Set at the peak of grassroots activism in London, it delivers a punchy hour of moral dilemma as we follow six friends embarking on their unlikely plucky plot to storm the BBC radio studios and broadcast their truth to the world.

The date is New Year’s Eve, 1989. As the world prepares to welcome in a new decade, we meet Minnie, a teacher living a secret double life, hiding her sexuality from those at school in order to keep her job. As the mum of the group, Minnie is the guiding voice of sense to her friends. Her girlfriend, Harley, is an American immigrant with a very real personal reason for pursuing radical protest. Two sex workers make up a third of the group, Chelsea, pregnant and a bit naïve, and Cam, cynical and lacking hope. A northerner frequently in trouble with the law, Staffy, is lovably rough around the edges, and the group is completed by Beth, the, and I use this word very lightly, antagonist in the show, doing well in their professional career and being slowly sucked into the corporate world.

Those are simplified descriptions of these characters, and while some have depth to them, others would benefit from further development. The talent of the actors and the strength of the writing means that I was engaged throughout and wanted to know more about each person and what had led them to become friends in the first place, as well as how they reached breaking point. The latter is explored a little, but it’s hard to do six stories justice in just one hour. The main conflict in the show occurs when Beth, the budding BBC radio producer, returns to the flat from work, having successfully stolen the keys to the studio. The friends celebrate their win, but this comes crashing down to earth when Beth reveals she is having second thoughts.

This conflict serves as the flashpoint for intense debate about how far each person is willing to go in their pursuit of making a stand for something they believe in. It explores class, gender, and identity struggles. It’s these themes which offer the most relevant and thought-provoking parallels between then and now. There has been progress made regarding equality and the treatment and acceptance of people with HIV/AIDS, but this show serves as a reminder that there is still so much further to go. There are parallels too in the current waves of protest and strike action we see around the country on a near-daily basis. All this context makes Goodbye ’89 painfully relevant and almost depressingly poignant.

The first production of the budding By The Balls Theatre Company, this show was developed by its co-founders while studying at East 15 Acting School. As a debut play, it is very impressive. While the writing occasionally suffers from a lack of subtlety, and there is some clunky dialogue perhaps not representative of the period, which somewhat temporarily suspends belief of the world that’s been created, it’s understandable that much of this fictional tale will have been informed by creative interpretation. After all, 1989 was over 30 years ago. The performances are convincing, and each actor is clearly skilled in their craft, bringing a unique sense of vulnerability and understated emotional insecurity to their characters. Ellen Trevaskiss (as Staffy) and Michaella Moore (as Harley) are two standouts for me. Both had an air of authenticity to their performances which were delivered in the laid-back manner of their roles and the confidence with which they sometimes portrayed intricate and intense emotional reactions.

With no director credited on the VAULT listing, I am presuming the direction in the piece was shared by the whole company. If so the quality of it is a huge achievement. With six unique characters on-stage for most of the show the direction is both understated and seamless. It felt as though at all times characters were engaged with the plot, and the blocking and sightlines were well thought out. This had the result of adding a huge amount to the realistic feel of the London flat, despite the minimal set.

Goodbye ’89 is a somewhat nostalgic yet relevant play which questions what it means to make a stand for something you believe in and celebrates pioneering queer activists and their allies. While its format and writing don’t pull up any trees, it’s a really fun and energising hour spent in the company of six relatable and grounded friends, each with their own quirks and agendas. A rocking 80s soundtrack completes the evocative and sentimental vibe – a vibe which I hope is able to inform the next iteration of this tale or inspire By The Balls Theatre Company’s next production. I’ll certainly be there to see what they come up with.


Goodbye ’89 played at VAULT Festival 18-19 March 2023. Find out more:

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