Sam Patterson was at the Wales Millennium Centre for the launch of their new cabaret space, opening with a performance of Luke Hereford’s Grandmother’s Closet.
Since 2004, the Wales Millennium Centre has been a cultural hub for all things arts in the Welsh capital. Whether its large-scale towering productions of West End and Broadway classic musicals in the Donald Gordon theatre or more intimate performances of critically-acclaimed theatre and live music in the Weston Studio, the WMC has in its relatively short time down Cardiff Bay established itself as one of the city’s leading arts venues.
Never one to rest on their laurels, the people behind the Centre are constantly striving to improve and this has resulted in their newest space, Cabaret, which held its official launch on the evening of 23rd February. Thumping music mingles with the chatter of pre-show festivities as people laugh and enjoy drinks from the venue’s personal bar. The space is designed to put on intimate shows from a wide range of emerging and inclusive entertainers, with 120 seats surrounding the stage. Modernity reigns supreme in this space, from the wide open floor plan to the gender-neutral bathrooms, with people of all and no gender mingling as they wash their hands and help themselves to complimentary hairspray and condoms. This space has been created to celebrate the variety of experiences that humanity shares. A dress-up space sits next to a chaise longue, smiling staff members encouraging you to play, to take photos, to be in the moment as well as capture it.
Of course, the launch of a new performance space would be nothing without a performance and Luke Hereford’s Grandmother’s Closet is a perfect complement to everything this new space endeavours to celebrate. An autobiographical musical adventure that explores the tragedy and resilience that go hand in hand when growing up as a young gay boy in South Wales. Surrounded by the oppressive nature of a heteronormative society that prides itself on being a man’s man, chugging lager, objectifying women, and keeping one’s horizons limited, Luke’s only support comes from his grandmother. Whether he’s dancing around to his queer icons at the age of five in her clothes, about to head off to his first Pride, or dealing with homophobia from within his own family, she is there to encourage him to be unashamedly himself. “I’m not just your Nan,” she tells Luke throughout the show. “I’m your friend too.”
It is this bond, shared so strongly between a woman with decades of experience facing the world and this fledgling struggling to understand why he seems so different, that threads the show together. And thus it is all the more heart-breaking as Luke begins to ask his grandmother, to whom he is speaking the entire show, if she can remembers all of these experiences that formed him so completely and of which she was an integral part. Though primarily the journey of a young gay man, perhaps the crossover appeal, and why there were so many older people in the audience, is the show’s exploration of dementia, and the ravaging effects it can have on those who are left in its destructive wake. A particularly potent moment comes as Luke watches his grandmother who seems perfectly content as people trickle in and out of her home to celebrate her birthday while he, outside of the insidious withering of a mind, has to deal with the clarity of the situation.
Though this show tackles some of life’s more challenging aspects, it is not without its humour, its light, and its ultimate triumphant message. Whether channelling any of the myriad gay icons who have helped shape countless young homosexuals, from Kate Bush to Bjork, Madonna to Judy, Luke brings the sheer joy that comes from living through these divas and finding a sense of empowerment through femininity. As Luke himself points out, he was never going to be a backup dancer for Kylie, and though his singing is good, the show benefits from it not being fantastic, as a certain charm shines through: many young queers lived through these icons and the level of talent was always irrelevant. It was the freedom and the expression that was truly important.
Despite some serious tech issues which were swiftly handled with wit and professionalism, this show brought great heart and a message of flourishing in the face of adversity. Accompanied on the piano by the talented Bobby Harding, Luke Hereford’s production is the perfect opener for a space that puts inclusivity, acceptance, tolerance, and integrity, at the heart of everything it does.
Running until the 26th February, Grandmother’s Closet is a poignant exploration of turmoil and triumph, suitable not only for those cis gay men out there but for anyone who has ever felt like an outsider. Seeing this show will not only lift your spirit but will give you an excellent opportunity to check out the WMC’s brand-new performance space. Come here the music play at Cabaret!
Grandmother’s Closet runs at the Wales Millennium Centre until 26th February, tickets are available here. Read Peter Darney’s thoughts about the new cabaret space, here.