Con-Version at the Vaults
It’s astounding that in 2023 the British government still haven’t banned controversial conversion therapy. Aimed at “curing” gay people, the contentious practice has also targeted members of the transgender community. It is reported that a minimum of 7% of queer people – equating to approximately 45,000 in the UK – have been offered or undergone it. The government have repeatedly pledged to put an end to this abhorrent so-called treatment. However, this has yet to materialise. The subject is seldom explored on stage but writer/producer Rory Thomas-Howes refuses to shy away from exposing its horrors. The result is an invigoratingly innovative theatrical experience. Transported through an array of emotions, the audience is at times rendered discombobulated and guaranteed to depart with more questions than answers – the primary ones being how and why we are still having to address this issue.
Lulu Tam’s set is simple. Tables are positioned in the shape of the cross. A mother (Ruth Redman) clutches her newborn baby as the ensemble almost chants a religious hymn. The atmosphere is at first foreboding before morphing into awkward unease as a family awaits the return of their son (Elan Butler). His homecoming is brief. He does not plan on staying. When he learns he has been lured back home under false pretences after his sister (Molly Rolfe) lied that their mother was sick, he makes his feelings towards her known. He departs, only to immediately return as an alternative scene plays out. This time he is in the company of his fiancée (a hilarious and memorable Phoebe Ellabani). His actions are robotic, his speech repetitive. All is far from well, yet the family go through the motions and pretend it is.
Playing out like a trippy fever dream, we are forced to question what is real and what is fantasy just as our protagonist attempts to distinguish between the memories he has created and those that are genuine. It quickly becomes apparent that Mother rules the roost. She has ideals of what her family should be and how each member should behave. When her narrative is diverted, she simply writes a new version of their story. This perplexing puzzle of a play not only highlights the nonsensical nature of conversion therapy but also examines the idea of control. It looks at nature and how humans can attempt to deter one another’s preordained paths in the blind hope of forcing some sort of serenity. It looks at family dynamics, love, guilt and hope but does so in the most surprising of ways.
It is no overstatement to say the entire cast excels. Redman is compressed with conflicting emotions and buckling under her self-inflicted pressure to do what she perceives to be the best for her son. Timothy Harker as her husband captures the beat-down almost subservient role he has been forced to adopt and shares a particularly poignant scene with Butler. Butler has a mammoth task to fulfil but does so with apparent ease. His chemistry with the always impressive Alex Britt as a gay neighbour is enthralling and the actor instantly garners our empathy. We are immediately invested in his journey, despite its non-linear and at times puzzling presentation. It’s an assured and alluring performance.
Butler and Rolfe are also effortless together as brother and sister, with Rolfe exhibiting deep emotion as her character struggles to grasp what her brother has been through and more so why. Ellabani as aforementioned shines, ushering in some welcome laughs amidst the more unsettling aspects that dominate the 80 minutes.
They fly by exceedingly fast. Director Sam Edmunds allows enough breathing space for such weighty themes to be addressed and reflected on, however also ensures sleek, snappy scene transitions make for a pacey production. Tilda O’Grady’s movement direction provides startling imagery which commands our unwavering attention and allows a multitude of visuals in the absence of much scenery or props. They are not needed thanks to the strong performances and characterisation resulting from a carefully crafted script.
As many are aware, the Vault Festival has now been deprived of its home of 11 years. This polemic play only accentuates the calibre of talent and urgent writing the festival has become renowned for showcasing. Here’s hoping a new venue is secured so such storytelling and voices can continue to be heard.
Con-Version is at the Vaults as part of the Vault Festival from 14th March until 19th March 2023, for further information or to book visit here.
Read more reviews from our Vault Festival 2023 coverage here.
For further information about the event visit the Vault Festival website here.