New York, September 2018
The struggle for acceptance for the LGBTQ community in the UK and US continues to exist but certainly not at the same level as it did in the 1950s. No doubt great strides have been made over the decades, even in lieu of some setbacks. The AIDS crisis in the 80s and 90s that plagued our community along with a heavy conservative backlash when marriage equality finally became a realty in the US and UK are real. But ask most younger members of the LGBTQ community who Harvey Milk was or what happened the night of the Stonewall Riots in New York City, and they might be pressed to answer.
In Karlton Parris’ new Off-Broadway drama at the Davenport Theatre, Once A Year on Blackpool Sands, we are transported back to 1953 in England just after the Coronation and when being gay would land you in jail and your family publicly shamed. In this gripping and heartfelt play, we learn for the first time of unheralded trailblazers whose heroic act one night on the beach in Blackpool helped to change the course of LGBTQ acceptance in the UK.
Yorkshire coal miners Eddie and Tommy spend Wakes Holiday, their one week off a year, on the sands at Blackpool where most of the miners vacation to get sun after a year of being underground. These two secret lovers take a chance on a new hotel where they encounter Gladys, a faded chorus girl and her daughter Maureen running a quirky guesthouse called Withering Heights. Gladys’ communist mother, Red Ethel reminds her daughter that she was a terrible mother to Maureen and hopes that her granddaughter has a better chance at a good life. Also at the hotel for the week is Mr. Elbridge, a transvestite who hides this fact from his wife (left at home) and has multiple female personalities that come out during this week in Blackpool.
When the coal mining lovers first arrive, Tommy is afraid of trying a different guesthouse for fear of being caught. What Tommy doesn’t know is that Eddie has already been caught the night before by the police kissing a boy in public and spent the previous night in jail. The two finally settle in to the hotel and Eddie persists in coaxing Tommy to run away with him to LA. When scared Tommy is resistant, Eddie turns to Maureen for companionship and offers her a chance to leave with him, which, of course, she wants to do. Mr. Elbridge, meanwhile only wants the chance to walk in peace down the boardwalk of Blackpool as one of his ladies with her head held high.
All hell breaks loose when the newspaper publishes Eddie’s picture as a criminal and Tommy is angry to discover that not only has his secret boyfriend been kissing another fellow, but is wanted by the police. Eddie sees his chance to stand up to the public intolerance when Mr. Elbridge invites him to walk with him. Maureen joins in on the walk with her mom Gladys and her grandmother Red Ethel. While they all walk arm in arm down the disapproving boardwalk, Tommy at last comes around and joins his boyfriend and their unlikely friends in this act that would start the change of tide for LGBTQ rights in the UK.
Kyle Brookes portrays the brooding Eddie with ease, mixing the subtleties of attraction and longing for Tommy with the discontent of this secret he holds. We don’t come to know why he has a black eye until the second act when the paper reveals his secret. Mr. Brookes blends the masculinity of the coal miner with the sensitivity of a boy in love with another boy beautifully. Macaulay Cooper, also tenderly portrays the more timid and afraid Tommy. His longing to be with his lover is outweighed by his fear of being found out. Both actors are perfectly cast and seem at home sharing the stage and a bed together.
Wendy Laurence-James is no stranger to Karlton Parris’ dramas having portrayed a myriad of women over the years for the playwright. Wendy is one of those actors who embodies the very soul of the character she plays. Her dry yet colorful delivery of the well-constructed dialogue is fitting not only for the play itself but also for the time period. She understands the delicate balance of playing the truth of any given moment and the art of simply delivering a punchline. She is funny and touching all at the same time.
Linda Clark as Red Ethel is also a joy to watch. Her comedic timing is impeccable, but she can turn you on a dime with a sincere moment of truth. Mollie Jones as Maureen is equally talented, especially during a monologue about black pudding and pasties. Dominic McCavish’s portrayal of Mr. Elbridge is heartbreaking, especially in the second act when we learn of the pain he suffers.
But the true star of the show is the play itself that soars in the hands of the playwright. Mr. Parris’ dialogue moves the drama with ease and tells this gripping true story in a manner that holds the attention of the playgoer. No doubt the movie which is being shot and will involve the same cast, will shine. The characters, while zany and funny, are rich with turmoil and desperation. Each character’s wants and desires are clear in this beautiful play. And the coming together of all of the characters, arm in arm, taking the historic stroll down the pier of Blackpool, reminds all of us that the LGBTQ movement was started long ago by unheralded people who had more courage than we will ever know.
Bill Whitefield is an independent theatre reviewer, actor, director, composer and singer who lives on the Jersey Shore with his husband Chris Verdi.