REVIEW “My Son’s A Queer, But What Can You Do?”
Updated: Feb 2
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Rob Madge is a superstar.
I could quite easily leave it at that without having to offer any justification. But as Rob themself says during the opening of their show “My Son’s A Queer, But What Can You Do?” It’s all very self indulgent. So I am more than happy to indulge them and tell you just why it it that I love Rob Madge.
When Covid ground the theatre industry to a holt in March 2020, I like Rob, found myself living once again with my parents. Returning home to spend the lockdowns with them. Many used the time as a period of reflection, whilst some got stuck into home work outs, baking banana bread, or simply eating and drinking their cupboards bare. Superstars like Hannah Lowther, Oscar Conlon-Morrey, Jonny Weldon and Rob Madge, were taking to Twitter to entertain themselves, but more importantly all of us, with brilliant, inspired, and hilarious self shot videos.
With theatres around the world closed, I too was using my mother’s back bedroom to fill the void by recording interviews on Zoom with stars including Rachael Wooding, Matt Henry, Rebecca McKinnis, Alice Fearn, and Liam Tamne.
Rob Madge was creating content by digging out his closet and dressing up box to put together incredible theatre inspired sketches. Like any great comedian, what made Rob’s videos so on the money was their detailed observation. During this time, we were also introduced to Rob’s fabulous parents Jon and Jan, who would play hilarious cameos and supporting roles in Rob’s videos. Rob then began to release archive home videos of them as a child, showing that Jon and Jan had been Rob’s support acts for decades ever since they were a child.
I use the word support, specifically when applying it to Rob’s relationship with their parents, as the truly beautiful aspect of these videos that was beginning to emerge, was how supportive and clearly proud Rob’s parents were of them. Not once seen to discourage or put down their child, they embraced their flamboyant child with love, encouragement, and the freedom to express themselves without question.
This relationship between Rob and their parents underpins their show “My Son’s A Queer, But What Can You Do?” that delves back through Rob’s childhood as they talk about their upbringing, as they share projections of home video tapes. There is something adorable about watching home videos of children, unaffected by the world. We watch as Rob, a creative and imaginative child puts on shows in their living room for their parents and grandparents.
Only a matter of years later Rob would be performing in front of much larger audiences in London’s West End and beyond, as a child actor in productions of Mary Poppins, Oliver! Les Misérables and Matilda: The Musical.
They would go on to train at the Royal Academy of music, graduating in 2019.
After this Rob would become unrecognisable as they shed not only their hair and grew a moustache, but would come out as non-binary, shedding the last layer of the innocent little boy who dreamed of being a Disney princess.
“My Son’s A Queer, But What Can You Do?” depicts the journey that brought Rob to this point. It’s both brilliantly funny and incredibly moving, whilst acting as a resource for better understanding the terminology and nature of being non-binary. Rob’s parents are held up quite rightly as the heroes in this story, leading as examples of how to simply accept and motivate your child to be whatever they want. It’s heartwarming and inspirational.
The show is beautifully bound together by original songs written by Pippa Cleary. A brilliant young composer whose work includes The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13¾ Pippa has crafted the perfect balance that showcases Rob’s voice and words. The music is what lifts this production in to a full scale show, along with the genius use of lighting and clever set.
It was Rob themselves who originally reached out to theatre producer Paul Taylor Mills, who as well as acclaimed success from In The Heights and Heathers the Musical. Paul had taken Amy Booth Steel’s show Honest Amy to Edinburgh. A show that also grew off the back of a performer using Twitter to showcase their creativity. Amy who’s show chronicled her own survival story of cancer and PTSD had posted a song about her experience on Twitter that had over 70,000 views. It led to Amy crafting a full show that was directed by Kathy Burke.
Paired up with & Juliet director Luke Sheppard and assisted by Tom Jackson Greaves, Rob’s show was given the Paul Taylor Mill’s magic touch, and premiered at his Turbine Theatre in the summer of 2021. With sold out performances, the show could have easily continued a successful run, were it not for Rob being cast in their dream production of Disney’s Bedknobs and Broomsticks that took Rob away on tour for the rest of the year.
“My Son’s A Queer, But What Can You Do?” was revived in 2022 with a coveted slot at the prestigious Underbelly George Square in Edinburgh’s Fringe Festival, again where it sold out. It was during this run that it was announced that the show would be transferring to London’s West End, at the Garrick Theatre.
I had missed my chance to see it at the Turbine Theatre, and also Edinburgh where it was sold out, so for me the Garrick Theatre became my first and only chance to see it, and boy was it worth the wait. (Hmm, perhaps I could have thought of a less binary way to express that!).
As a gay man, now in my forties, I like to think of myself as fairly liberal, but even I have to confess my guilt to not having a fuller understanding of what it is to be non-binary. Like anything I put it down in part to it not being my lived experience. But like any reasonable and opened minded person, I am listening and learning, and grateful to artists and activists like Rob, who are taking the time to educate and inform. It is not their responsibly to teach us, but by conveying their experience and insight it really does help us to understand and recognise what we can do and where we can help. Even writing this article and during the videos that I posted on social media about this show, I have had to pause and correct myself after typing ‘he’ instead of ‘they’.
The world is changing, and where as gay men we once asked for acceptance, understanding and consideration, I now stand as an ally to the non-binary community who simply ask for the same respect and attention.
It’s a progress and change that is slowly happening. With people signing off their emails, updating their bios and even theatre programmes now including pro-nouns, in an effort to clarify and normalise the use of preferred pro-nouns.
What Rob effectively does more than anything in their show, is to open up this conversation to a new audience who are ready to listen. Progress is slow, but it does happen, and it can only ever happen thanks to pioneers like Rob.
It is for this reason, as well as Rob’s open and willingness to discuss and share their experiences with mental health that won Rob the Performer Award at this year’s Industry Minds Award. Held at the Turbine Theatre, the award had previously been won by Amy Booth Steele, and is an incredible legacy.
Rob who won the Whats On Stage Award for Best Off-West End Production earlier this year, said they had peaked when during a performance in Edinburgh, actor and comedian Chris O’Dowd was spotted waving his phone torch in the air during Rob’s final song. Rob who has climbed to the highest of fame, now even has people creating fake online profiles pretending to be them. That’s when you know you’ve made it.
It’s still humbling to recognise that Rob still feels overwhelmed by what they call a “surreal” journey, seeing their story told out in a West End theatre. But what struck me, and I hope Rob was aware of, was how much love, warmth and support was being given back to him by the 700 or so audience members that I was sat with at one of their sold out show’s at the Garrick. As I sat and looked around the room throughout the hour long show, we all laughed, we shed tears, but most of all we all loved and appreciated Rob for just being them.
Rob who begins rehearsals for the London Palladium’s pantomime Jack and the Beanstalk, where they will play Pat the Cow, alongside Dawn French and Julian Clary , it is an incredible and well deserved achievement for the little boy from Coventry who grew up to flourish in their own non-binary finery.
“My Son’s A Queer, But What Can You Do?” played at the Garrick Theatre until Sunday 6th November 2022.
UPDATE: 2nd February 2023.
“My Son’s A Queer, But What Can You Do?” returned to the West End, on 25th January 2023 at the Ambassadors Theatre. I was invited to their gala performance on 1st February.
The Ambassadors Theatre is the original home of The Mousetrap where it played for the first 21 years of its now 70 year run. With 444 seats it is smaller than the Garrick Theatre that has 732, and is the perfect new home for this intimate production. Rob seems comfortably at ease on their stage in this personal story of their upbringing.
Since their run at the Garrick Theatre, Rob has completed his run at the London Palladium playing Pat the Cow in Jack and the Beanstalk.
Returning to “My Son’s A Queer, But What Can You Do?” Rob has included some updates and a few extra touches which continue to polish up this beautiful show. Rob commands the show, reacting to set pieces going awry, without flinching. The small more circularly auditorium of the The Ambassadors Theatre helps Rob to lean in to their performance and engage more with the audience, enhancing the show phenomenally.
Even though I had seen it once, I was still just as moved, laughing and crying along with the entire audience as Rob’s story manages to really hit home. Although it is bound to resonate more with the LGBTQ+ community, the universal story of one persons journey of self discovery and acceptance is something I’m sure most people can relate to.
“My Son’s A Queer, But What Can You Do?” plays at the Ambassadors Theatre until Saturday 18th March 2023.
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Follow them on social media:
@MySonsAQueer @Rob_Madge_02 @pippa.cleary @PaulTaylorMills @turbinetheatre @FollowTheCow @edfringe
@mysonsaqueer @robmadge02 @pippa.cleary @paul_taylor_mills @turbinetheatre and then @underbellyedinburgh
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