When 20 something self-proclaimed hipsters start worrying about how they feel queer and identify as queer but don’t really know if other queer people would agree, it’s time to stop for a second or two (only) and reflect on the results of a painful struggle: once a slur, queer is now, as Milk Presents assert, at least a bit of a badge of honour, a bit of an aspiration and perhaps even a bit of a trend – a label company members would be happy to proudly wear, if only they were sure others would agree with their decision.
There’s doubt over whether that would be the case however. Milk Presents have identified a slight glitch in their approach to queer, and with it an interesting phenomenon: they belong to a generation who might identify as queer, but feel little genuine connection to the movement, or indeed the people who fought not only for the term but also for basic human rights; devout of politics, queer is now lived through clothes and punk covers of Beyoncé. Cue Self Service, a punk-ish, politically-flirty cabaret on what’s normal, what’s queer, and whether there is such a thing as legitimate activism-free queerness.
While Self Service certainly insists on persuading everyone there’s no real narrative structure behind its variety of songs, sketches and jokes, it is actually a carefully if somewhat clumsily crafted show. It begins happily and confidently queer, and then slowly disintegrates into self-doubt as three performers consider whether they are worth the tag and their two compères begin to protest, before finishing in sentimentalism: a song about personal freedom and the joy that comes from hearing church bells in the morning. The structure is obvious, but Milk Presents insist on pretending the disintegration is an inevitable coincidence, despite clear evidence to the contrary. The compères are volunteer audience members, whose homophobic protests come from a script read in a manner that’s only to be expected from unrehearsed non-professionals; the cast renounces sketches they just performed, but the impression is they are making excuses for political dubiousness on show, rather than delivering verbatim personal confusion.
Dramaturgy of pretence in a form that traditionally relies on performing authenticity aside, when Milk Presents zoom in on intimate identity issues, they neglect to consider the wider socio-political context if only for the sake of the argument. The company professes that political detachment is one of the struggles of contemporary queer youngsters, but then makes no attempt to engage with anything other than themselves. Instead they take a cheap, generalised shot at Putin, before proclaiming it a cheap, generalised shot on the count of the fact the Moscow variety of violent homophobia could happen in London. It actually couldn’t; the violence in the UK comes from bigoted individuals rather than stemming from active encouragement by the state. In search of a fight to stand behind, Self Service then takes on those in opposition to same-sex marriage, singling out two conservative politicians (who, it’s worth mentioning lost this battle) and a syllogistic American (who, it’s worth mentioning, comes from the country of the Bible Belt, one where same-sex marriage is still not legal across the states).
Self Service kicks off with interview recordings in which random Brits across generations reveal they are not really sure what queer means. As it turns out there’s little concrete consensus on the term outside a specific community – one inherently connected to activism and political stance. The potential depoliticisation of the term by the First World Millennials is a poignant premise to untangle within a punk cabaret, but unfortunately that’s not where the show is headed. Instead, it identifies the discrepancy and then spends an hour allowing the company members to argue they ARE queer, via the means of sketches on cross-dressing discrimination, horridly chauvinistic jokes that remain only half subverted and substantiated if superfluous disses of the liberal, organic, pretend-left. The performance ends in the company giving up and deciding that labels are free for everyone to deploy, a stance epitomised in a hymn of enjoying the little things in life. There is no politics – but now there’s also no need for it.
Self Service is at Northern Stage at King’s Hall, from 2nd -23rd August