In a store room at the Broadfield Community Centre in Crawley, Annie Casson is painting her nails. She arrived at 7:30 this morning. Since then she has dressed the hall, co-ordinated the volunteers, overseen a sound check, and helped prepare the scones, cake, and tea for her guests. A woman pokes her head round the door, looking for somewhere to store a case of champagne. This is Enid. At 88 years old she’s the eldest volunteer at the Posh Club, and insists she can bear the load of booze herself. “If I can’t do it, I’ll ask for help,” she says. Annie signs off on a five star rating with environmental health, and brings her attention back to her half-painted, red nails. This is the last thing she’ll do before throwing open the doors at midday. She looks down at her left hand. She’s got a plaster on the middle finger, having nicked it with a knife in the kitchen earlier. “I’m not sure what to do about that finger.” she laughs, “I need a red plaster!” and her infectious laughter fills the room.
This is the Crawley Posh Club, and it’s Annie’s baby. Made in collaboration with Vauxhall-based queer cabaret legends Duckie, it’s a weekly social event for ‘swanky senior citizens, elegant elders & glamorous golden girls.’ For a five pounds entrance fee, guests can expect high tea, a glass of bubbly, and at least two professional turns. Not to mention a raffle, a pianist, and a disco, before carriages at three pm.
One of the turns on today will be Alfie Ordinary. Dressed in thigh high black socks, matching silver sequined shorts-and-waistcoat, and a silver bow tie. As the son of a drag queen, he is a drag prince. And he’s just returned from a UK and Ireland tour with Jinkx Monsoon, who won season five of Ru Paul’s Drag Race. Jinkx’s subsequent shows in the UK have seen her being described as having an “appetite for affront and indiscretion.”
“I was the opening act, which is pretty much what I’m doing today,” Alfie tells me, “I literally only finished the tour yesterday, and the suitcase is still packed and so I thought why not just do the same show.” It’s an indication that the standard fare at the Posh Club isn’t typical for an over 60s club. In fact, the acts that perform here are just as racy and subversive as anything you’re likely to see downstairs at the Soho Theatre, or at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern’s flagship cabaret night, Duckie.
The Posh Club has been going since 2013, when Annie’s brother Simon saw the potential in the tea parties Annie was throwing for their mum Rene in her front room. Simon Casson – a founding member of Duckie – managed to secure funding for a ten week run in a local church, and now the Crawley club hosts a hundred guests each week. Not to mention four other branches operating in Brighton, Hackney, Elephant & Castle, and Hastings.
The programme of acts which grace the stage at the Posh Club are drawn from the same pool of performers as Duckie’s cabaret nights at Royal Vauxhall Tavern, and would broaden the minds of the most cosmopolitan audiences let alone the Broadfield Community Centre. Simon is extremely proud to bring drag, cabaret, and burlesque to people that might not otherwise be able to encounter it, and emphasises the warm reception it gets from the Posh Club’s guests: “Queerness is completely at the centre of British culture. They have no beef with us whatsoever. Any crossdresser or trans person that happens to cross the threshold is just welcomed. That revolution has worked in these kind of working class communities. And that’s very satisfying.”
As he goes on the explain, queer performance is nothing new. “The British public have been looking at people like Alfie for the past 200 years,” says Simon, “through music hall, through panto, through those camp comics on TV.” But what is radical about Simon’s approach is that he is bringing it to a demographic that rarely gets to engage with queer culture.
Not long ago, Stonewall published a guide to working with older lesbian, gay, and bisexual people in care and support settings, highlighting the fact that people in this group face difficulties in being ‘out’ to carers. They are also more likely to live alone, less likely to have children, and less likely to be visited regularly by biological family, than their heterosexual counterparts. One of its key recommendations is for raised awareness, non-judgemental environments, and encouraging discussion and open communication.
When it’s Alfie’s turn to perform he glides on to the stage in a multi-coloured sequined cape, launching into Joseph’s Technicolour Dreamcoat. Alfie has the audience in the palm of his hand, laughing and singing along in the space of a few moments. “I love it here, it’s fantastic,” Alfie says after his performance, “I didn’t really know what I was getting into. It wasn’t until I was here that I really realised how important it was.”
The anecdotal evidence of the Posh Club’s impact is endless. It provides an inclusive, welcoming environment for LGBTQ older people. But its reach is wider, too. By all accounts, coming to the club keeps its mixed, dedicated band of attendees active, sociable, and positive. There are more and more studies emerging that prove the wider benefits of communal activity for older people, such as reducing anxiety, increasing confidence, and even improving cognitive function.
The Posh Club doesn’t seem like a public health activity, but that’s what it is. Which leads to the peculiar challenge of maintaining funding for a charity which looks like a party but behaves like medication.
With their lottery funding coming to an end this year, the only way forward for the Posh Club is to speak the language of the policy makers. Together with Queen Mary University of London, Duckie is six months away from completing a study on the health impacts of the Posh Club on its guests. Those individuals taking part in the study have been referred by their GP, and undergo a series of tests, questionnaires, and interviews as part of a general assessment.
The aim is to acquire hard proof that the club is reducing the amount of times its guests go to the doctors, that it is reducing the burden on GP services for non-clinical needs, and that social prescribing such as this really works.
The precise details of the health benefits on its guests will be invaluable in keeping the club open, but that’s not the reason Simon and Annie set it up. Their mission wasn’t to save the NHS. They did it because it’s fun. They did it because it’s a brilliant club which people enjoy – a waiting list as long as your arm is all the proof they need to keep going.
But Simon argues that it is exactly this mission statement – one that aims to excite rather than educate, one that refuses to parachute high art into community spaces – which is the reason the club’s funding is in jeopardy.
“It’s really specifically for working class folk. We call it working class entertainment so it’s for people that haven’t been to uni,” Simon explains, “The arts have always avoided that group. The arts serves bookish people. This kind of broad brushstroke, big, passionate entertainment is for ITV or the Palladium, it’s not for the funding system.”
Before he co-founded Duckie, Simon studied on the now defunct community theatre arts course at Rose Bruford. He graduated into a theatre landscape of agitprop, and political theatre which has all but disappeared. But his politics remain resolute. “Crawley is the roughest town in Sussex, and Broadfield is the roughest part of Crawley, so where else to open a glamorous, glitzy, Las Vegas-style night club?” he says.
The Posh Club is one of three projects that answers a question Simon constantly asks himself: “How do you create the working class theatre of the future?” A wellbeing project for homeless people in London, and a QTIPOC arts collective in Hackney, make up the trio of flagship community enterprises.
Back in the hall, Annie is on stage to draw the raffle. She has only started compering the show recently, but she’s a natural. Warm and funny – the audience adore her.
This is part of the plan too, that every Posh Club is self-sustaining. That they are both of and for the communities they serve.
Annie compliments the sequins of the last act, makes a joke about the plaster which has interrupted her red nail varnish, and starts the raffle. There are two birthdays in the house today, and by some curious twist of fate they both come away with prizes.
Simon wants two hundred clubs like this, all over the country. He wants one in every town. He wants communities to be strengthened by coming together, he wants people to be respected and included, and for their health to be boosted in doing so. But mostly he wants to give people the opportunity to dance, in their own community hall, every Tuesday afternoon.
Make your Gran proud – donate! The Posh Club relies on funding and donations to help keep the teapots, cake stands, and dance floors filled. If you’ve got a spare bob (or two!) please consider giving. http://theposhclub.co.uk/sponsor/
Stonewall guide to working with older lesbian, gay, and bisexual people: https://www.stonewall.org.uk/resources/working-older-lesbian-gay-and-bisexual-people