Canary charts the experiences of being a gay man in Britain from the 1960s onwards. It takes as its title a quote from gay activist Peter Tatchell who said, “We are the canaries in the mine,” the “litmus test of whether a society is democratic and respecting human rights”.
It is a tremendously strong play, successfully weaving a history of struggle into the personal stories of four gay men whose lives illustrate the huge changes over the last 40 years.
We first meet Tom and Billy in 1960s Liverpool, trying to hide their relationship from the society’s condemnation. It isn’t possible, and Tom, a trainee policeman, joins the bigots and turns on his lover. Billy is found guilty in court of being “homosexual” and in society of being working class and Irish.
Then we meet Mickey and Russell, whose experiences 20 years on are very different. When they come to London to escape their parents’ bigotry they find an established world of gay clubs where they can dance freely and express their sexuality openly.
It is this link between past struggles and future changes which is the great strength of the play, as we see not only what a very different world Mickey and Russell live in, but how the freedoms they enjoy had to be fought for and won. After being rejected by both his lover and society, Billy joins the Gay Liberation Front and is transformed by the radical cry, “Gay is beautiful.” Twenty years later it is this pride in being gay which enables Mickey to confidently identify homophobia for what it is. And he goes further, building solidarity for the miners’ strike and winning the miners over by pointing out that they are both at the end of the policeman’s truncheon.
I would recommend this play as a worthy tribute to all those who have fought for sexual equality, and as an inspiration for the struggles that lie ahead.
Canary will be at the Hampstead Theatre until 12 June.
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