"I didn’t expect to get into drama school in my early thirties and create a play inspired by the troubles I faced growing up queer in Wiltshire, but I did. I guess that this story’s been dying to find a way out of me."
Actor and writer Alistair Hall reveals how his experience growing up gay in a small town inspired his one-person play Declan (Tue 29 Nov - Sat 3 Dec at 9pm).
Content warnings: homophobia, bullying,
A story about a queer person experiencing the traumas of suburban alienation isn’t anything new. It’s a tale as old as time, told through many mediums. And rightly so - when I was fifteen living in a market town in Wiltshire, I needed those nights watching queer indie VHS rentals to signal to me that I wasn’t the only one being called a ‘faggot’ at school - that there might just be a life beyond that.
I can’t remember how I first heard Smalltown Boy by Bronski Beat, but I know I was ecstatic to discover a musical anthem that matched how I felt. Oliver Sim of The xx recently released his debut solo album Hideous Bastard, a deeply personal exploration of shame, sexuality and his HIV+ status. On the album, he duets with Bronski Beat lead singer Jimmy Somerville on the track Hideous, a move that felt like an ode to the song’s ability to inspire many queer people to search for a place to belong.
For me, that place was a city. I moved to London shortly after my 18th birthday with an A-Level in English and a BTEC National Diploma in Fashion Design I’d never end up using. I’d outgrown the market town. At the time, I couldn’t see how bad the bullying was. I got stones thrown at my head, was spat on regularly and was called 'Poofter' so often that I began to respond to it, as if it were my name.
In my early teens, home life was tricky. My parents were going through a messy divorce fuelled by my fathers alcoholism. But my family were wonderful when I came out. My mum actually asked me if I was gay and when I replied that yes, I was she hugged me and told me it was chicken kiev for dinner. It was the world outside that was the problem.
By the age of fifteen, I was already out clubbing in Swindon or Bristol - the nearest places with a gay scene. I carried my fake ID around with pride and loved nothing more than necking Blue WKD as Kylie’s Can’t Get You Out Of My Head swirled through the soundsystem. But my hangovers carried me away from the club, back into the bedroom on the quiet street in the heteronormative neighbourhood I lived in. I had to leave.
The first few years in London were a blast. I segued into my twenties scraping by at my degree and focussing fully on nightlife and nightlife only. It wasn’t until my mid-twenties when my failed attempts at relationships and confusion around my career choice made it clear I was struggling with those shame-based issues so clearly defined in Matthew Todd’s Straight Jacket.
At the age of 30, I got clean and sober (that’s for another blog) and decided to acknowledge my secret desire to be an actor. A want and need that had been clawing away, having spent most of my childhood and early teens participating in youth theatre or school plays. I certainly wasn’t thinking about my hometown when I started going to acting classes, freshly sober and needing an outlet to keep me on the straight and narrow.
At 32, I got a place at RADA, on its MA Theatre Lab. A course that was half actor training, half devising. When I was given the green light to create a one-person play inspired by an improvised monologue during a routine acting class, I didn’t expect to develop a character fully caged in by his smalltown surroundings in the way that I had once been.
The truth is that Declan, the play in question, isn’t actually autobiographical. The stone-throwing and name calling I experienced is all in there but the show is inspired by these questions:
What if I’d never left my hometown? How would my mental health had been if I’d stayed? Given that I struggled with it in liberal London, how would it have looked maturing into the confines of said market town?
I felt compelled to look at life through the lens of a character who didn’t find the empowerment or escape route they so desperately deserved. This is where the fiction kicks in, and by that I mean I moved away from own experiences and created a narrative arc for a character that didn’t have the opportunities I did. This was less about wanting to create a dark space, and more about honouring some of the stories of people who didn’t find the light.
But despite its bleak leanings, I’ve been told Declan is very funny. I hope people will find it smile-inducing as well as “deep” and “dark” - previous audience choice of words, not mine. For me, Declan is something that happened almost accidentally. I didn’t expect to get into drama school in my early thirties and create a play inspired by the troubles I faced growing up queer in Wiltshire, but I did. I guess that this story’s been dying to find a way out of me and in telling it, even through a fictionalised character, I’ve found a freedom I’ve been looking for.
Tue 29 Nov - Sat 3 Dec at 9pm