The Scotsman Sessions #108: Pierce Reid and Matthew McVarish

Welcome to The Scotsman Sessions. With performing arts activity curtailed for the foreseeable future, we are commissioning a series of short video performances from artists all around the country and releasing them on scotsman.com, with introductions from our critics. Here, Matthew McVarish and Pierce Reid revisit their roles in the Lyceum Theatre’s 2017 production of James Ley’s Love Song To Lavender Menace, which tells the story of the titular bookshop, which acted as a hub for Edinburgh’s LGBTQ community in the 1980s

As James Ley is quick to point out, in Love Song To Lavender Menace, Scotland in the early 1980s was not a homosexual paradise. Despite the legalisation of gay sex between consenting adults across the UK in 1967, the act was not formally decriminalised in Scotland until 1980; and even when it was no longer criminal, gay culture and experience was still surrounded by layers of social shame, denial and silence.

Yet in Edinburgh, signs of change were appearing. The Scottish Minorities Group office - offering legal advice to the city’s LGBT community, along with coffee and a bookstall - had opened in Broughton Street, Edinburgh, in 1974; and by the turn of the 1980s, the bookstall - run by the remarkable double act of Bob Orr and Sigrid Neilson - was outgrowing its corner space in the SMG office, both in scale, and in the boldness of the material it stocked.

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In 1982, the bookstall therefore moved into a basement in Forth Street, and re-launched itself as the Lavender Menace Bookshop; and as Edinburgh’s gay clubbing scene went from strength to strength, ever more gay people across Scotland began to emerge from the closet, and the looming AIDS crisis created a whole new world of challenges, the bookshop became a vital community hub for LGBTQ people who were beginning to find their voices as never before - although throughout its time in Forth Street, the shop would still remove its sign from the railings on the street each night, to avoid attacks and vandalism.

Pierce Reid and Matthew McVarish

James Ley’s Love Song To Lavender Menace - first produced in the Lyceum’s Grindlay Street Studio in 2017, and then revived in the main theatre last year - is therefore a fascinating slice of Edinburgh’s urban history, and a moving tribute to one of the many small initiatives that helped to transform the lives of the LGBTQ people over the last 40 years. The play is set in the bookshop on the night before it closed, in 1987, going on to become the larger West & Wilde bookshop in Dundas Street; and behind the two foreground characters, Lewis and Glen, who volunteer in the shop and are packing up for the move, we also see glimpses of other men on their journey to a more open gay life, including a bluff Lothian & Borders policeman with secret yearnings, and a young married man who gains strength from simply walking past the Lavender Menace sign during his lunch hour, until the moment when he finally finds the courage to go in.

In this extract, filmed by the original cast of Matthew McVarish and Pierce Reid, we meet that young married man, changed forever by his first visit to the shop, and the policeman, blown away by what he sees when he’s sent to check that no-one is breaching the peace in Fire Island. The gentleness of James Ley’s writing is its hallmark, as he explores what was for so many people a seismic moment of social change; and through it, Love Song To Lavender Menace emerges as a play for our time that speaks quiet volumes about cities and change, and about those magic, unrepeatable moments when people find themselves at the living centre of a huge social revolution - in San Francisco, in London, or in a basement off Broughton Street, right here in Edinburgh.

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