Theatre review: Love Song To Lavender Menace, Lyceum Theatre Studio, Edinburgh

Matthew McVarish and Pierce Reid in Love Song to Lavender Menace at the Lyceum Studio
Matthew McVarish and Pierce Reid in Love Song to Lavender Menace at the Lyceum Studio
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The part of Edinburgh where I live is changing; rents have soared, and the dead hand of Airbnb creeps up the street, gradually corroding community. Yet in the area around Broughton Street, change – both intensely local, and linked to much wider global trends – has always been the name of the game; and that was never more true than in the 1970’s and 80’s, when it became home first to the Scottish Minorities Group, campaigners for homosexual rights, and then to the Lavender Menace Bookshop in Forth Street, now celebrated in this nostalgic, slightly rambling and yet absolutely life-packed play by James Ley, at the Lyceum Studio in Grindlay Street.

Lavender Menace – run by the double-act of Bob Orr and Sigrid Neilson – grew from humble origins as a book stall in the SMG office to become one of the true centres of Edinburgh gay life during the vital early-80’s years of the AIDS epidemic, the club dance boom, and the emergence of the modern LGBTQ movement; and Ley’s two-handed play seeks to capture its story through a multi-stranded narrative set mainly on the day in 1987 when Lavender Menace finally closed, and moved out of the basement to become West & Wilde in Dundas Street.

Love Song To Lavender Menace ****

Lyceum Theatre Studio, Edinburgh

Young Lewis, who works in the shop, can’t believe this isn’t the end of a rare moment of gay liberation; his friend Glen is more optimistic. And as they work through a long night to pack up the remaining books, they both act out the story of the bookshop’s origins (and its sci-fi and disco inspirations), and receive some strange hints of a future when full gay equality will at last become possible.

In a reminder of why the bookshop was so sorely needed, Ley’s two-hour play also includes a series of poignant monologues by an outwardly straight young Edinburgh man who gains strength just by walking past the Lavender Menace sign. And if director Ros Phillips and actors Pierce Reid and Matthew McVarish sometimes adopt a throwaway, diffident performance style that weakens the play’s pace and impact, this is still a play for our time that speaks volumes about cities and change, about the freedom they offer and the price they demand, and about those magic, unrepeatable moments when a social revolution is in the air, and some people find themselves at the living centre of it, in San Francisco, in London, or in a basement off Broughton Street, here in Edinburgh.