Love Song to Lavender Menace review – an ode to 80s LGBT booksellers

Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh
The Communards punctuate the soundtrack to James Ley’s funny new play celebrating the Edinburgh bookshop that was a lifeline for the gay community

What 84, Charing Cross Road did for literary letter writing and Black Books did for slacker shop keeping, James Ley’s new play does for the specialist 80s bookseller. In an era before the online retail giants, before the pile-’em-high dominance of Waterstones, when even mail-order selling was a novelty, Lavender Menace was a beacon of hope for anyone at odds with a heteronormative world. The Edinburgh bookshop sold its gay and lesbian stock for five years from 1982, its very existence a suggestion that other lifestyles were available.

That’s the case for a recurring character in Ley’s funny and celebratory play, a married man whose lunchtime detours merely to walk past the shop’s exterior seem to him to be an act of shame, subversion and, just maybe, liberation. A furtive glance on a trot down Forth Street is as much rebellion as he can cope with. In this way, Ley argues that the shop’s importance was not only as a cornerstone of the Scottish capital’s gay and lesbian scene, but also as a place of possibility.

Pierce Reid and Matthew McVarish in Love Song to Lavender Menace
Sharp comic timing … Pierce Reid and Matthew McVarish. Photograph: Aly Wight

From Tales of the City to Rubyfruit Jungle, every story on its shelves was a validation of LGBT lives, confirmation that the socially excluded were not alone. If such narratives could take place in Jean Genet’s Paris or Edmund White’s New York, then why not also on the Calvinist streets of Edinburgh?

Love Song to Lavender Menace is also a love song to a moment in time. Shop assistant Lewis has a Neil Tennant curly quiff to match co-worker Glen’s Jimmy Somerville tuft. Played by Pierce Reid and Matthew McVarish respectively, they punctuate their historical cabaret with a soundtrack of the Communards, Eurythmics and the kind of hi-NRG disco hits that filled the floor in Princes Street’s Fire Island club.

Under the pretext of performing a homage to the shop for the benefit of its founders, Bob Orr and Sigrid Nielsen, they run through a history that begins with a Scottish Homosexual Rights Group bookstall in 1977 and winds up with the approach of the iniquitous era of the section 28 legislation against “promoting homosexuality”.

Ros Philips’s production is sparky and good-humoured, Reid and McVarish showing sharp comic timing as they resist the cliche of the tragic gay narrative arc and the equally predictable gay love story. As a play, it is modest in its scope, but it claims a piece of recent history with zest, compassion and due reverence to the power of the printed word.

• At Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh, until 21 October. Box office: 0131-248 4848. On tour until 29 October.


Mark Fisher

The GuardianTramp

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