The period between the end of the Christmas revels and Easter is a bit of a dead time theatrically speaking. I mean, sure, there’s been a couple of big openings (Almeida’s Hamlet – all sold out; Old Vic’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern – good enough; Imelda Staunton in Virginia Woolf – a bit long) but nothing earthshaking. Into this wasteland (by London standards, and I am spoiled) strutted a glimmer of hope in the odd guise of the National Trust, hosting a Marchtime celebration called Queer City London, which appeared to be some daytime walks accompanied by some rather vague evening shenanigans at some place called The Caravan Society. When the tickets went on sale, I wasn’t really entirely sure what this “club” was going to be, so I got a variety of tickets – to a tour, to an evening opening with no program, and to one of the Queer City Nights series of “talks, debates and performances” that came with a slightly higher price tag. The evening events appeared to be selling out under my feet … and I was just getting my tickets 15 minutes after they had gone on sale! Good God, what kind of madness was this? Had I inadvertently come upon the hottest event of the London spring calendar?
The tour of historic queer Soho was great for context on what life was like in London before the decriminalization of homosexuality. But given that all of the ticketed evening events were at a recreation of “The Caravan Society” – one of the clubs regularly raided during the bad old days – I have to say I wasn’t really feeling very optimistic based on the unimpressive preview of the space we had at the end of our walk. Some couches against a wall, a bit of drapery hanging from the ceiling – we were supposed to believe that this was the “pouf’s brothel” so hatefully described in the old police papers? The little table with a bit of makeup on it and some photostat letters just did nothing for me. It was like trying to imagine a fantastic roast dinner from a dried up bone. It wasn’t even the same building as the original Caravan Society. I felt let down.
But I held out hope for what would grow when it was night time, the venue was filled with cheerful people, and the lovely MC Ralph Bogard was working at stirring up some magic. And when I came back on Thursday night – cheekily asking for a ticket at the door – I suddenly found myself in a vibrant, warm, boundary-erasing environment that was everything I could have hoped for and more.
The room was dimly lit, hazy (with dry ice fog, not smoke), and something lovely was playing through the gramophone. We slid onto a tucked-away couch and immediately struck up a conversation with the people sharing our nook. Why hello! What brings you here? And how do you get a drink …?
While we were still getting ourselves settled, the Master of Ceremonies took the stage to announce the Caravan Carousel, which required us to …. gasp … get up and start conversations with TOTAL STRANGERS. How un-English! And yet people went for it easily, and goodness only knows there were many, many people there that looked well worth talking to … what a nice excuse to go say hello! So off we went, canoodling and carousing, finding that a space that struggled to hold 50 people was far more full of life and interest than you would have ever expected just based on math.
Then it was time for performances. I saw several performers over the many evenings I attended (because oh yes I did go back), ranging from the debonair Dorian Black to the extremely tasty Mister Meredith and the lubricious “Mercury” (both of whom wound up wearing considerably less clothing than when they started) … not to mention Lili LaScala, Tricity Vogue, and whoever that half-naked dancing boy was they had in on closing night. VA VA VOOM. In between their numbers – danced on the small raised platforms in the middle of the room, but also done amongst us – indeed there was a real focus on audience interaction – the performers mingled and visited and spoke to us hoi polloi as if they were one of us. Oof!
But …. but maybe we were! Because one of the other fabulous features of the Caravan Society is that we, the audience, were asked to contribute to the evening’s entertainment with our various “party tricks” (as Mr Bogard called them when he circulated amongst us attempting to tease out a predilection for showmanship). And people did! I heard limericks and regular poetry, watched people do the splits and handstands, heard songs … what a wonderful bunch of talent we all had! We were encouraged to participate with the promise of a box of chocolates at the end, but could there have possibly have been a better reward that the approbation and admiration of our fellow society members? It didn’t seem possible. Even the bar staff and doormen were effusive with the few and the brave … who would not want that tiny moment of stardust? It made all of us glow a little brighter to have so much of it to share.
The evening ended each night I attended with a mock police raid – just whistles and the talent being hustled down the back stairs, while a voice overhead recited a plea to be released … and sent home with one of the “nice boys” in blue. In retrospect, The Caravan Society was a fun night with a clever concept that well repaid its trivial ticket price. And yet … I felt it was more than that. The tour had talked about clubs where clearly people were looking for more than just a place to drink; a place where they could be in their community and not continuing the pretense they used as a shelter in their everyday lives. A place where you could wear lipstick and nail polish and not be beat up or shunned … a place to drop the mask and maybe make a few new friends. I know that feeling; I spend my life pretending to be a nice married lady but I can’t be honest about my life or where my heart lies in my day to day life. Society wants you to keep a cork in it and not talk about feelings or not fitting in; we’re just supposed to suck it up. And let’s be honest, even while being gay (in the big cities at least) has become more acceptable, even within the community there is bashing on people for being too effeminate, inappropriately bisexual, or just generally not fitting tightly enough into some box that people find a comfortable way to categorize.
But once upon a time, it was all of us against all of the people that wanted us to stay in the closet, keep our mouths shut, and pretend like we fitted in. We had to support each other. We need to support each other still. And in this fantastic space of queerness, the Caravan Society of 2017 brought us back to our roots; one community, supporting each other in our diversity, uniqueness, imperfections, and mutual realization that We Just Aren’t Like Them. And for those few nights, a comet blazed across Soho, and all of us had a place where we could be glorious together and set the world on fire. We had the Caravan Society, and I can only hope that its light shines on into the rest of this year.
(Apologies to any performers I did not get to see or mention. Thank you to the wonderful reprobates who made this venue come to life. This was one of the best things I’ve ever done in the ten years I lived in London and I loved every moment of what you created.)