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A Haunted Existence review at The Island, Bristol – ‘meticulous account of gay men’s lives’

Tom Marshman in A Haunted Existence. Photo: Paul Samuel White
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In 1954, 17-year-old Geoffrey Patrick Williamson, questioned by police officers while on a train home from Exeter to Bristol, gave the names of men he had slept with. At a time when homosexuality in Britain was against the law, Williamson told the police officers: “You may find these things morally wrong. I do not.”

Williamson’s words become a kind of chant in Tom Marshman’s new work, a theatrical seance for the lives of gay men living in post-war Britain. Using storytelling, lip-syncing and projection, Marshman delivers a history lesson on legislation and the invisible lives it destroyed.

Staged in the basement of The Island, a former police station in Bristol, where cells are fitted with temporary exhibitions featuring newspaper cuttings, statistics and historical timelines, the show certainly feels haunted. Marshman occasionally disappears behind a scrim into a very deep, dimly lit space as if retreating into the past, as faint, green-tinged projection light flickers across the walls of the basement.

Atmospherically rich, the show nevertheless feels somewhat thin. Made in collaboration with historian Jeanie Sinclair, it’s obviously meticulously researched, but it doesn’t ever get very far beyond simply presenting the history. Marshman tells us about the men for whom Williamson’s testimony led to prosecution and, in many cases, prison sentences, but the moral complexity of Williamson’s decision to come clean remains just out of focus. A Haunted Existence succeeds in honouring forgotten lives and unheard stories, but those stories feel still somehow opaque, flickering dimly in the fog of time.

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Thoroughly researched account of the lives of gay men in post-war Britain