Theatre review: Love Song To Lavender Menace, Summerhall

The Scotsman / Ben Walters


Written by James Ley and directed by Ros Philips, this hilarious, heartfelt and provocative play tells the story of Lavender Menace, the gay bookshop that occupied a basement in the New Town between 1982 and 1987. Or rather it presents us with two of the shop’s young employees – idealistic, politically engaged Lewis (Pierce Reid) and amiable, fun-loving Glen (Matthew McVarish) – as they try to tell its story in between getting sidetracked into talking about the local scene, activist history, their favourite books and songs, their hopes, fears and desires.

Ley’s script achieves a deft and sophisticated balance of subjects and registers, shedding light on queer experience with humour, warmth, passion and complexity. There’s vivid attention to the quirky particulars of Lavender Menace, from the signage that was taken down each night in case of hostility to the proud, curious or furtive customers who found in it a sense of belonging and possibility.

But there’s also great local detail about Edinburgh and nuanced attention to the lived politics of queer life as well as the risks – no less acute today than in the 1980s – of mistaking limited mainstream tolerance for genuine liberation.

Reid and McVarish are both superb, animating the odd couple of Lewis and Glen with laughter, frustration and fire while also inhabiting supporting characters including the shop’s founders, a policeman, a bank manager and even Margaret Thatcher. It’s a play that insists on the joy of the unexpected, the strange fluidity of time, the power of storytelling and the ecstasy of radical culture, from proud disco to scandalous erotica. Far from sentimental nostalgia, Love Song to Lavender Menace is a reminder of how precious and precarious spaces of real difference truly are.