(#AD) A Haunted Existence – part review, part interview, 100% brilliant & important theatre…

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So picture the scene; it’s 2013 and I’m on a train. I’m younger, i’m confused and i’m looking out the window heading towards an adventure for the weekend. I meet this lush lass and even though i’m an introvert, we get chatting away – there’s something so special about a train journey meet. It’s sacred, it’s secret, you can be totally honest and real as it’s quite likely, you’ll never meet that person again. We chat about so many things but sexuality is a common theme (something which i’d never discuss with my nearest and dearest); we discuss our journey with self acceptance, exploring the binary and experimentation – all whilst there is a flirting energy and growing common bond.
The person opposite us, is eagle eyed through-out the whole conversation and has a constant disapproving stare with various tuts. One too many train wines later, there is a kiss, mostly to rebel against Mrs Disapproving; then the train journey ends, we swap numbers with no real intention of staying in touch but happy that in that moment, I was able to be my true self and open. It was a perfect train journey.
Now let’s compare this is to the story and subject of talented theatre maker Tom Marshman’s BRILLIANT play “A Haunted Existence” on a week long run this week at Alphabetti; we learn about Geoffrey Patrick Williamson in 1953, a lad of 17 on a train who meets a man at a time when being gay was not just considered “morally wrong” but a proportion of society, but it was also illegal and regularly punished with jail time and aversion therapy/torture. Geoffery chats to this man…I imagine him at 17, exploring his identity and sexuality (like most young people at that age), that spills over into an interaction on the train – one perceived as “safe” with a stranger. The person who he is chatting to, he feels a connection with and ends up having a moment……that moment changes his life forever. He is arrested by an undercover police offer for homosexual “improper advances”, interrogated and later (after pressure) gives the men of 15 other men, who are arrested.
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The parallels between the two train journeys are clear but the outcome so different – how many of us have had these “moments” of totally honesty with strangers without consequences!? The sanctity of connections with strangers for many of us is SO important and a total life line. To have a “secret” moment of being “real” violated like Geoffery’s makes me so sad….. this is a theme that is often brought out in a Haunted Existence – men like Geoffrey “love seeking” and “in it together and in it alone”. These fleeting moments with strangers provided solace and a sense of hidden “collectiveness” in a world that chased their true selves to hide, to be silenced and often alone with it. Everyone needs to have those moments in their lives – especially a young person like Geoffery at 17.
A Haunted Existence has been on a run at Alphabetti this week (you can see it tonight or tomorrow still – Tickets are £6-8 and available HERE) and I’ve not stopped thinking about it since, a sign of a great piece of theatre. A Haunted Existence weaves together history and hearsay to highlight turmoil, stigma and heartbreak and tell the story of Britain’s very recent, shameful past.I had the pleasure of being invited to the opening night on Tuesday and it was just fantastic and SO moving- if you see one piece of theatre this year, you NEED to see this. There are still some tickets left for tonight and tomorrow.
The forgotten/untold stories of Jeffery and the 15 arrested men are told beautifully exploring their “haunted existences” as gay men unable to live as their true selves, some stripped of their freedom, some faced aversion therapy and all lives changed forever. Tom combines music, rhyme, movement, projection to tell these stories and whilst it is a one man show- through the innovation of the projections, many characters are present on stage.
I had the pleasure of catching up with talented Tom Marshman before his opening night at Alphabetti, over the phone for a quick interview about his journey so far as a theatre maker, making the show and what’s next…..
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Tom Marshman
Tom Marshman has been making theatre since 1997 and has a catalogue of interesting, innovative, evocative projects that blend movement, dance, performance, contemporary theatre, installation, film, project and artistic residencies – this boundary blurring is something that I find utterly aspirational. You can certainly see it in a Haunted Existence; the storytelling is brilliant, Marshman’s flair for strong visual characterisation is evidenced at a time when new technology is more available than ever to theatre makers, so this type of storytelling has gone from impossible to the core part of the likes of Marshman’s theatre making. I asked Tom about this and he talked about the collaborations, artistic input from other theatre makers and creative professionals, that had enabled him to put his vision on stage. Another reason why I love the creative sector, the sentence “i have this idea but i’m not sure how to make it happen”, is like a battle cry to the sector and usually results in the ability to assemble a team of hot talent to make it a reality. And the team behind A Haunted Existence, are just that, TALENTED!
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Tom revealed in our interview that his journey into theatre making was purposeful but over time, including taking a degree, working in a call centre before gradually becoming a full team theatre maker. Researching Tom, I found he was MUCH more than a theatre maker; an avid art activist, live tea party host, film maker, passionate about queering the space in Bristol – celebrating queer icons, an agent provocateur within the Live Art sector developing an artistic network full of opportunities and within another collective using archival materials and research as a means of “re-enacting” moments a new. Tom is one of those creatives who already has had such a positive impact and from my perception has helped pave the way for the next generation of boundary defying projects that my peers are able to work with such freedom. He seems to put so much of his playfulness, personality, experience and his personal journey of self discovery into his work – I admire his ability to do so and the authenticity when he’s on stage is captivating.
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I suggest if you want to find out more about Tom, you check out his website for his past projects – he’s made such interesting work body of work. He’s arguably got the most interesting back catalogue of projects that i’ve seen from a theatre maker – all very Culture Vulture. One of my favourites, which i highlighted to Tom during our chat was “Passion of the Pole” – Tom revealed he thought it was interesting I’d selected that one, as it was a relatively small project that he didn’t perform that much at the time. To give you a flavour of why fell in love with the sound of it – he mixes visual representations of Christ on the cross with live pole dancing – which he took up and mastered especially for the show. I like things that push boundaries, bold, daring, shocking and certainly, stuff that other people aren’t doing – no-one likes a beige buffet and I’m such that show was a visual feast that I would have LOVED!
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Tom’s love of research and hidden history is evident in previous projects,also was (and continues to be) an important part of A Haunted Existence and it’s development – he confesses that he has a “fascination for uncovering extraordinary stories” and that’s exactly what he does, with such precision, detail, seamless narration…..
The best theatre I’ve seen this year, has been about REAL people and their experience, but there is always (in my mind) a fear of doing these real life stories justice, especially when the people’s stories being told were the subject of such oppression, silencing and injustice. However, Tom gives such a beautiful and respectful platform in A Haunted Existence, to these men, including Geoffery and manages to do it in a way, that in parts, you feel like the men are on stage sharing that collective moment with the audience and having a dialogue. I type this whilst literally tearing up thinking back to moments of the show – it really is so moving to learn about the trauma these men experienced for the rest of their lives after their arrest. Tom also shared this pressure to do these “forgotten” men an element of justice in making the show and also shared, that family members had reached out to him, very positively responding to the show.
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Another interesting element, of Tom’s theatre making process for A Haunted Existence, which he both shared with me during our interview AND in the show itself, is that he engaged with a medium to connect with these men. He held a seance with Sarah, a medium and a group of like minded friends. The seance revealed themes, imagery, men, shadows which were fed into the show’s creation. Whilst, I have never experienced a seance myself – I am a believer in the afterlife and paranormal (had my own experience – but that’s for another time) so I really bought into (and fascinated by) using this as a process to connect with the subjects of the developing piece. I also considered it an interesting process of centering yourself into that moment with Geoffery on the train whilst symbolically thinking about some of these men, at that time living as ghost versions of themselves – elements of their true selves forced into hiding or to live an invisible, discreet lifestyle.
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During the interview, we discussed that A Haunted Existence holds a mirror up to society in the past, present and (potentially) the future – the mirror symbol I would later discover would be thematically featured in the show. Our conversation further highlighted how “curated” our learnt history actually is – we are taught and presented a white hetero normative version of the historic world, almost like LGBTQ+ and queer people didn’t exist. These sections of society only seem to be presented and representative in history as trouble makers, extreme activists or societal deviants – the deviancy portrayal is clear in the show. A Haunted Existence reminds us, that these people existed in 1953 (and for hundreds and hundreds of years before that/forever)…. but our society (we) punished them, silenced them, made them feel ashamed, hide, pretend and then we have erased them from history or failed to represent them.
In history, we are taught of the moment that homosexuality was legalised and at school my history teacher told our class, being gay was “frowned” upon – so I was presented with the view as a child, that being gay was a lifestyle that wasn’t embraced by society….A Haunted Existence reminds us, it was SO much more than that. We locked people up for it, we tortured them, we made many feel so ashamed of something so natural that they took their own life to escape….. Tom Marshman does a brilliant job here of presenting this shameful truth in a way, that doesn’t lecture, disengage but reminds us of an inescapable historic period of fact, that may make some feel uncomfortable but so important to acknowledge – especially, during a time in the present where liberties all over the world due to the political climate are potentially at stake for many again and how we need as many allies as possible.
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I asked Tom, to sum up in his words why he thought people should come and see the show at Alphabetti – his first response was “Because I’ve worked really hard on it!”, which I guess all theatre makers say – however, after experiencing the show, you really see exactly how hard Tom and has team have worked- It’s brilliant, it’s beautiful and it’s important theatre that really says something important. Tom’s second response was that the show was “moving and uplifting” – now from what I’ve written above, you’ll get a sense of the moving element – but it is very uplifting too. Firstly, it has a happy ending…. (I also cried at that as it was SO perfect) and secondly, there are elements of humour, Tom’s disarming charm, a soundtrack that made me smile on multiple occasions and comedic moments were crafted into the show, meaning I cried and laughed a few times (sometimes at the same time – thank god for the darkness of the audience).
Another uplifting element, was that whilst, the world and experience was a tragedy for the featured men from 1953, Tom then charts some of the positive changes that happened in the legal system; the judges and advocates who enabled change (allys – they might not have self-identified like that at the time) and how we begin to move to 2001 where being gay was officially 100% legalised. Of course, change was PAINFULLY slow, but I felt a sense of “thank fuck” for these people speaking out – at a time, when clearly opinions like that wouldn’t have been welcomed.
As with many creatives, Tom has lots of plates spinning so of course, one of my closing questions during our chat was about “what is next for Tom Marshman!?”. He revealed that he plans to tour A Haunted Existence in 2020 “a little more” which makes my heart swell, as I want as many people to see this show as possible….. he also share that a project/show he is starting to develop now is about Kenneth Williams. Knowing Tom’s work now – this sounds like a match made in heaven project – I love Kenneth’s slap stick persona, the Carry On Films were such a big part of the comedy scene at a particular time and I have always found it interesting that a gay man like Kenneth, his “camp characters” were accepted in the mainstream at a time, when his private life wasn’t as readily – something which is so weirdly ironic. I’m extremely excited to see how that project develops and plays out……
But for now, you’ve still got two nights to see A Haunted Existence; it’s on tonight and tomorrow (Saturday 30th Nov). Still some tickets available but they are flying as the world is out about how important and unmissable this show is.
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If you get tickets or already have them – make sure you get down to Alphabetti early, so you have chance to take in the pop up exhibition which charts LGBTQ+, cultural and political events. It’s a small but perfectly formed exhibition – I loved it. Also stick around post show to meet Tom in the bar area and to purchase a commemorative Pewter Tankards made by Wentworth Pewter, to mark 50 years since the partial legalisation of homosexuality, inspired by the stories told in A Haunted Existence.
A Haunted Existence by Tom Marshman is on tonight and tomorrow at Alphabetti Theatre, tickets are £6/£8 and doors are 7.30pm. It lasts 1hr 10mins – if you go to see it or have been – tell me what you thought?
Disclosure : I was gifted tickets to the opening night of the show – however, everything above is my own words and an authentic, honest review of my EXPERIENCE.

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