Seven powerful short plays make up Outlaws to In-Laws, which has just opened at the King’s Head Theatre, supported by Bruno Wang Productions. Each written by a leading gay UK playwright, the works combine to create a ground-breaking living history of the gay community over the seven decades since the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1967.
Part celebration, part vital record, the production owes much of its power to the personal experiences and interests of the writers. In an interview with Ryan Gilbey in the Guardian recently, three of them – Jonathan Kemp, Topher Campbell and Jonathan Harvey – revealed what sparked their ideas.
For Harvey, the opportunity to write about life in the 1960s was impossible to resist. “It’s such an interesting period,” he said. “Social change was up in the air and decriminalisation was on the horizon, but it was all still dangerous. The rules of the day were like a blackmailers’ charter.” The resulting play – Mister Tuesday – describes a relationship between two men, one of whom is married. How far will his partner go to keep their affair alive?
Jonathan Kemp’s play Reward explores the tension of an interracial relationship set in 1977, during the Queen’s Silver Jubilee celebrations. “Choosing the decade I’d grown up in was a way of unpacking and trying to make sense of it,” he said. “Even though I was around then, I’d have been too young to experience the full impact or to really understand what was going on.”
Kemp believes his work has modern relevance. “The Black Lives Matter movement was just starting when I was writing the play and it felt apposite to what I wanted to address. Racism is prevalent in the gay community, but then there’s no reason why it wouldn’t be. Just because someone’s gay and in a sexual minority doesn’t mean they’ll make connections with other oppressed minorities and express compassion or goodwill.”
He points to online dating: “Look at Grindr and Scruff and you’ll see profiles that say ‘No blacks’ or ‘No Asians’ or whatever. It’s a big problem in the queer community.”
Firmly set in that modern world is Topher Campbell’s Brothas 2.0, which sees two black friends in the early 2000s on a dating website. Campbell explained: “I wanted to say something about the Noughties because of how the internet impacted on people’s lives and sex lives and identities. In particular, for black men who have sex with men, it created an important space given our minority status. There aren’t that many places for black people generally to meet so cyberspace provided something that real space wasn’t offering.”
Overall, Outlaws to In-Laws is clearly a piece of social history in progress. “It’s about people taking stock,” Harvey said. “Gay men haven’t all been off having children, so historically our stories won’t have survived. These plays should feel a bit like watching an episode of Who Do You Think You Are? and seeing where you came from. It’s a family tree that could easily die out. That’s why I think nights like this in the theatre are important. That’s a grand word, but it’s about nailing your colours to the mast and saying, ‘Don’t forget, all this happened to give you the privileges you’ve got today.’”