Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh
Seventeen-year-old Stephen McPhail feels marooned in his tiny island hometown, Millport. Sure, the mainland is only a short ferry-hop across the water, but the distance seems insurmountable. Stephen’s faither owns a pub, and his maw a B&B, and he’s expected to follow them into the family businesses. But the blokey banter at the bar leaves Stephen tongue-tied and blushing, and he dreams of something more. It’s only when handsome newcomer Henry Thomas arrives that Stephen finally figures out why he doesn’t fit in: he’s gay. The realisation brings him little comfort: Henry not only rejects him, but also makes sure he’s ostracised by his peers. Because being gay in 1997 – especially in a small town, and even more especially when you’re still at school – is a long, long way from easy. Things only improve when the annual Country and Western festival rolls into town, and a keyboard-playing drag queen offers Stephen a way out…
Andy McGregor’s one-man (and a band) musical is a delight. The writing nails the open homophobia still so prevalent in the late 90s; I was a teacher then, and Clause 28 was crippling. Coming-out tales are far from rare, but this one soars: the songs are bold yet nuanced, and actor Stephen Arden really brings to life the young man’s loneliness and yearning. It’s always apparent that Stephen is a caterpillar, waiting to grow his wings, and – when he does – his exuberance is catching. There’s a real sense of celebration in the final act, and we leave smiling, sharing some of Stephen’s catharsis. Arden has an impressive vocal range, and the three-piece band (Kim Shepherd and Simon Donaldson, led by musical director Andy Manning) produce an impressively full sound. Arden acknowledges their presence, interacting with them occasionally, so that they are seamlessly integrated into the play.
The set (by Kenny Miller) is simple but very effective. A large photograph of Millport’s famous but – sorry – undeniably awful Crocodile Rock serves as a background, contrasting wonderfully with the sequinned glamour Stephen eventually embraces. The photo not only hides a sliding door, but also some hinged boards that open up to show us Stephen’s cartoon-themed bedroom, reminding us of just how young he is, poised on the cusp between boy and man.
Crocodile Rock is on tour. If you haven’t seen it yet, you’ve missed your chance in Edinburgh, but you can still catch it at the Lemon Tree in Aberdeen on 4th November. It’s a real treat.