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Callisto: A Queer Epic review at Arcola Theatre, London – ‘highly ambitious’

Marilyn Nadebe and Georgia Bruce in Callisto: A Queer Epic at Arcola Theatre, London. Photo: Lidia Crisafulli Marilyn Nadebe and Georgia Bruce in Callisto: A Queer Epic at Arcola Theatre, London. Photo: Lidia Crisafulli

Tightly packed and highly ambitious, Callisto: A Queer Epic weaves together four heterogeneous stories of same-sex relationships from across the ages: 17th-century opera singer Arabella Hunt (Marilyn Nadebe), whose husband James/Amy (Georgia Bruce) is publicly shamed as a cross-dressing woman, Alan Turing’s rapprochement with the mother of his dead lover, two women finding love in the 1970s porn industry and a human-android relationship on the moon.

The piece surveys love’s many facets. Darren Siah’s lovelorn Turing is wary of the barbed wit of whisky-sodden Isobel (Phoebe Hames) but eventually they find peace. Most hilarious of all is the parody of sleazy Callisto Studios, whose mucky videos spur Mid-Western gal Tammy on a quest to find love, complete with bom-chicka-wah-wah soundtrack. Meanwhile, android Cal (Nicholas Finerty) chats up his companion Lorn (Jonny Purkiss), in stilted robot-English – to the actors’ credit, these scenes are sweet and touching rather than giggle-inducing.

Though epic in scope, it’s not quite as subversive as the queer epithet might suggest. The characters might contravene the laws and moral attitudes of their time, but their relationship aspirations often seem heteronormative – they seek acceptance and conformity rather than revelling in their otherness.

The staging is necessarily minimal, enabling the keenly focused cast to switch rapidly from one era to another. Composer Tom Stafford’s sound design and Lily O’Hara’s costumes always ensure the setting is clear.

Cramming so much in makes for a theatrical tour de force, but while the transitions are slick and the general theme of love in all its myriad forms blazes through, the streams of consciousness don’t exactly coalesce into a flowing narrative.

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Audacious and dense account of queer lives that proves highly entertaining without quite connecting its disparate elements