This one-man show was part of Glasgow Arches LGBT History Month in 2015, but – as a straight woman with some years on theatre-maker Sam Rowe – I can attest that its theme has broad appeal. Any reader will identify with the story behind the story told here, namely the timely gift of a book which speaks to you directly.
In this case the book was The Journals of Denton Welch, first published in 1958. Rowe has adapted excerpts from the journals which he enacts in his solo show, interwoven with his own autobiography. Welch is apparently nonchalant about the facts of his sexuality; Rowe is much less laissez-faire regarding his own.
It’s a serious show, with little light relief from Rowe’s quite self-conscious delivery. Its setting is Summerhall’s old Anatomy Lecture theatre, dimly lit for the occasion, recreating a writer and collector’s living room from the first half of the twentieth century. The intimate setting and Rowe’s revelation of his inner wrangling make for a claustrophobic experience – and as such, it won’t be for everyone.
I don’t think it needs to be so intense. Whilst Welch died tragically at a young age, his life does not appear to have been characterised by these tragic circumstances, and so there is room for an easier telling. There may be something for Rowe to let go of here, perhaps during this run.
A number of quirky episodes which might otherwise offer light relief appear banal and overdone: a model figure is given a shower by mini watering can, Rowe throws water from a bowl over his face to signify getting soaked in the rain, he uses a milk bottle and a vase to represent characters in reported conversation. By the time Jacob’s ladder is metaphorically sent down to, literally, ignite a fire in a teacup – why? – and Rowe removes his shirt to loud music, spreading arms and torso to the heavens, it really is too much to bear, and the seats in the lecture theatre become very uncomfortable indeed.
It’s a shame, because it’s clear that this is a labour of love for Rowe. The whole thing is evidently very well-considered, though it must also be said there’s a particularly odd bit of direction close to the start, when Rowe breaks the spell and comes out of character to read a few facts about Welch from a piece of paper. You don’t need this information to get into the show – and anyway it could have been put up on a screen, or handed out to audience members to read beforehand.
With daily delivery it may well be that Rowe will lighten his touch, which will make all the difference to his show. Nonetheless, it’s brave and creative, and admirable for that. And I did Google for Welch and his books with interest afterwards – so after all, Rowe has made a lasting impression on me.