Review: Safe (Hackney Empire, online)

Safe is a verbatim play created and directed by Alexis Gregory (I reviewed his work previously in Sex/Crime). Previously performed at the Soho Theatre, this is now reimagined for the digital space.

A piece about the LGBTQ+ homeless and at risk, it opens with Bronski Beat’s Smalltown Boy sung acapella by a young performer (LaMont, a marvellous singer and prior winner of Pride’s Got Talent) in leopard-print, bathed in red light.

We then switch to four voices from Gregory’s interviews with people he met via the charity akt. Young, homeless, committed, fearless. As well as their testimonies – individuals at first but by the end joined by their own stories and definitions of safety – there is poetry from Yrsa Daley Ward’s pen.

Elijah Ferreira as Jack in Safe

Jack (Elijah Ferreira), Tami (Mary Malone), Samuel (Taofique Folarin), Alicia (May Kelly) are the four we meet to hear their stories, inhabited with ease by the out LGBTQ+ cast. All are excellent and convincing, bringing these tales into focus.

A trans man who knew at four it wasn’t right to be a girl. A “feminine gay boy”. A Nigerian who thought he was the only one attracted to boys. A girl who kissed another in the playground and didn’t know the word lesbian.

Each story is unique, real and thoughtful. Each young person hurt or rejected by their families. It is easy to be thoughtless, easier still to be hard. Think of the statistics: 25% of homeless/at risk young people identify as LGBTQ+; and hate crimes are on the increase agaist those in this space.

May Kelly as Alicia in Safe

In Safe we hear about identity, “who am I?”. Confidence, secrecy. Being “corrupted by Westerners”, parents’ views, school bullying. Homophobia and transphobia. Violence, abuse of power. Coming out experiences (the too-prevalent “just a phase”, the punch in the face, the searching for “a cure”).

The pre-conceptions others hold (“don’t be threatened by a difference”). Issues of addiction while searching for self-identification (“I didn’t know what I was”). Religion, which causes too many families to break apart and wound each other.

Positives, too. Safe‘s four characters are great communicators finding their own feet and their own voice. Jack, the trans man who knew as a child he was not a girl, has a confidence despite being pushed away from home. Tami, transitioning into the woman she found inside her gay identity.

Mary Malone as Tami in Safe

Samuel, whose traditional African family were determined to ‘save’ him, so upbeat and positive. Alicia, who “can’t have one drink” – safe in her own space, a long way on from “kissing a girl”. The actors and Gregory have given these young people a supportive platform and a place that is theirs.

What do we call “safe”? Tami offers her own acronym, but we all have our specific definition. What is “family”, and when is it important to create and maintain our own?

Safe is presented in association with HE Creative Futures, and supported by Park Theatre. It is freely available from 7pm on 19 April on Hackney Empire’s website.

Inage credit: Steve Kraitt (header); Jane Hobson (production photos).