Updated: Nov 6
Review by Harry Bower
The Museum of the Home, in Hoxton, isn’t known for its staging of plays. Its first production, Louis Rembges and Ian Giles’ On Railton Road, is an unqualified success – an explosion of queer history, joy, and gratitude. Surrounded by exhibits about homemaking and diverse lived experiences of those who curate their place, the Museum is the perfect setting to explore this fictional though part-verbatim recreation of the lives of gay squatters who lived in Brixton’s terraced houses of the 70s.
On Railton Road cleverly introduces the audience to an outsider, Ned. Ned’s looking for a place to stay and, having met up with one of the residents of House 161 on a night in the catacombs, thinks the squatters’ house might be just the ticket. We accompany Ned as he meets the eclectic mix of characters living side by side and learns the unique and challenging circumstances they inhabit. Carpet is a luxury. The fridge is delicately balanced between working andblowing the electrics for the whole house. A hole in the roof drenches the occupant of the attic room every winter. The council fill the toilets with concrete. Oppression is all around,neighbours, the police, the government. By framing the narrative around this newcomer, as audience members we don’t feel as we might otherwise feel – as though we’re intruding or peeping. We feel part of the lived experience of these people, more sympathetic to the cause.
Taking a seat in the hall-like space will transport some back to their school days. The sheer number of actors moving around the narrow, cramped setting is incredibly effective at demonstrating how it must have felt to have lived in those houses. With eight on stage together, there is barely enough room for each to sit cross legged. Intrusive thrust staging exposes the audience to that sense of claustrophobia. The direction of each scene is intelligent and subtle, allowing creative freedom for characters to feel their way into the space – nothing feels unnatural or out of place. That blend of sensitive movement and powerful narrative driven by passionate performances is summed up with one word: authenticity.
The cast are each brilliant. These are vibrant characters to play; a teacher trying to live a ‘normal’ life battered down by institutionalised homophobia, activists, and anarchists ready to do whatever it takes for equality, the playwrights, the dreamer. Its colour- and gender-blind casting is spot on, and it would be unfair to single out a performer. A true ensemble, each actor creates space for another, each character carving out their own emotional journey. The ending of the piece reflects on each person’s journey. That there are eight performers, and it feels as though each has a proper development arc is an achievement in itself.
Brixton Faeries is a gay theatre company established in 1974. They produced a play called ‘Mr. Punch’s Nuclear Family’, a parody of Punch and Judy which playfully took aim at society’s justification and acceptance of violence towards women and gay people. On Railton Road recreates that play in-between scenes of its own narrative – a play within a play – imaginatively and with some outstanding puppetry by Oliver James-Hymans. This format allows for some light relief following intense interactions or debate between characters, but more fundamentally serves as a constant reminder of how real, and important these stories were and are. Theatre was used by activists as a way into otherwise impenetrable social circles and communities, to spread the word and to persuade. That sentiment is mirrored in this production.
The whole thing is accompanied by an angelic soundtrack which never feels overbearing and strikes a near perfect balance between whimsical and grounded. ‘A Gay Song’, the main track which opens and closes the piece, is a beautiful throwback to the chants of early pride marches. Written by Alan Wakeman and Michael Klein in 1972, here Sophie Crawford does a brilliant job of retaining a sense of retro history while modernising it for use in a theatre setting. I had to go home and YouTube it – it’s an earworm!
This story of gay liberation and the high-gated walls of community has the power to make you feel warm, grateful, and sad, all in one go. Grateful that these inspirational figures went through what they did, leading the change they wanted to see in the world. Sad that so many are still oppressed. Inmany ways, a lot of the themes in this show are as valid today as they were 45 years ago, particularly related to power, government, and the liberation of oppressed people.
There is still a sense of progress, of course – demonstrated effectively by the superb writing of two characters in particular, at odds with one another fundamentally, one perusing chaos and anarchy in the form of a firebomb, the other slowly forcing change by legal methods. This insight into the debate of the time, the coexisting of different opinion and demographic inside one community… I’m conscious of over-using the word ‘authentic’, but that’s exactly how it feels. There are a few scenes which felt as though they could do with some tightening up, and one split-screen style scene which was a bit too stuttery for me, but by the time you’re on your feet applauding these performers and this story, those things fade into insignificance.
On Railton Road is a confronting and intimate love letter to the people who forced change and led the way on gay liberation, in a way which is rarely covered or taught today. It uses some inventive storytelling mechanics and multirole-ingto great effect, is written sensitively, and has great humour and self-awareness. More impressively though it respectshistory while having fun with experiences that were often anything but. The people of Railton Road deserve to have their stories told, and the cast and creatives of On Railton Road deserve a full house every single night.
On Railton Road plays at Museum of the Home until Saturday 18 November 2023. For more information and tickets visit: https://www.museumofthehome.org.uk/whats-on/events/on-railton-road-a-play
Photos by Lara Dunn