‘Do you see me. Do you really see me?’ the performers in Outbox Theatre’s And the Rest of Me Floats powerfully declared, as they put on and took off the costumes of gender, bumping up against restrictions and gloriously messing shit up. A similar tension – between the dangers of hyper-visibility and the need to be seen for who you are – flickers through The Queer House’s double bill of solo shows by Mika Johnson and Teddy Lamb. Johnson recounts their encounters with white girls, exploring how they exoticise their blackness and refuse to recognise their masculinity. Lamb voices the fear of going out with a new partner when they are both femme-presenting trans people. Both shows capture the hurt and grief of being yourself in a world that sometimes seems to want to deny your existence. But they also capture humour and joy, telling personal stories of identity in a gentle and affirming way.
Mika Johnson’s Pink Lemonade deftly combines spoken-word, movement and storytelling with an electronic dance track. The loose story that emerges follows Johnson’s character Mia in navigating two toxic relationships, with white lesbian Toni who tokenises them and uses them as an accessory, and with bar manager Simmi who refuses to admit that she is a lesbian, no matter how many times she comes when they have sex. Simmi focuses on what Mia does not have – a dick – rather than appreciating Mia for all they do have.
Johnson’s body pulsates with the beats from Juga Naut and Xana’s sound design, embodying a concoction of grace and strength that is hypnotising to watch. The dance sections, choreographed by Amarnah Amuludun, are some of the most powerful moments of the piece, grappling with how gender manifests itself upon a single body and how these things have to be lived to be worked out. Johnson, dressed in a black vest, boots, long shorts, rolls a lemon over their chest, back, shoulders. The first cocktail Simmi asks them to make for her is a lemon twist but the relationship turns sour. Later, Johnson throws their arms about in violent contortions, trying to be the kind of partner that Simmi says she wants: a man that throws his weight around. They roll the lemon over their body faster, more frantically. The exertion, the sweat, the hurt are palpable.
Emily Aboud’s direction brings out the humour in the show, including a hilariously abstract simulation of queer sex involving Johnson mashing their face into a pink box. The story of Pink Lemonade feels slight in comparison with the luminescent sound and movement, but the piece as a whole articulates the bruising experience of formative heartbreak.
Since u been gone by Teddy Lamb feels much more like a play; the text is densely written, as Lamb pours out words in an attempt to get it down all they want to say. Lamb addresses the audience as a friend, not just any friend but their best friend from sixth form college. ‘This is a remembering play’, Lamb declares, weaving a myth about how they met and what they did and what the relationship meant. The conceit comes into its own later in the play, when Lamb movingly considers how to update their friend on what has happened in their life since losing her, including coming to terms with their own gender identity.
The framing of the piece and its movement from the page to performance at the very start is a little clunky (Lamb starts with a sheaf of paper that initially made me wonder why they weren’t off book). But it also raises interesting questions of how, as a member of the internet generation, you remember a relationship and a person. There’s a powerful scene in which Lamb reads a series of Facebook messages they sent while their friend talked to them on the phone when they lost their voice. They admit that they only pretended to have lost their voice to avoid talking to her, which they feel intensely guilty about. The messages become both an archive of regret and an almost comforting record of their shared history.
The friendship that emerges from the play is complicated. Lamb is conscious that they weren’t always the perfect friend and also acknowledges how hard it was to be friends with someone who relied on them like a ‘life support’. The show beautifully explores the strain of trying to support those close to you. At one point, Lamb perceptively observes that people suffering from mental health problems are always told to reach out but those they reach out to are never told what to do.
Lamb has a warm and inviting stage presence. Like their writing, they are at once sincere and don’t take themselves too seriously, never risking lapsing into sentimentality. They have mastered the well-timed, deflating joke, recounting a sexual encounter with a boy in their class as a life-affirming experience and then admitting, ‘Basically he wanked me off under a table’.
Billy Barrett’s sensitive direction creates strong visual images and teases out the layers of emotion in Lamb’s rich script. Live music from guitarist Nicol Parkinson, including a moving cover of Kelly Clarkson’s Since You Been Gone, bathes the stage in the pink glow of 00s pop-culture nostalgia. Ultimately the show is a tribute – to Kelly Clarkson, America’s Top Model and, most importantly, Lamb’s friend Jordan. Like Pink Lemonade, Since U Been Gone is a celebration of (queer) lives and resilience.
Since U Been Gone and Pink Lemonade are at Assembly Roxy till 25th August. More info here.