It’s not often you can say that a theatre show: 1. Makes you feel like you’re in a sex store; 2. Makes you excited to be “in” a sex store; and 3. Uses the sex store to discuss important, timely issues impacting the multi-generational queer community whose Oxford Street home has become increasingly gentrified throughout the decades. I had the pleasure of attending the opening night of French Letters and Leather Cleaner, a new production presented by Fruit Box Theatre for World Pride.
Robbie (Dennis Clements), the wise, gentle heart of the play, is the owner of French Letters. A sex on-premises adult store situated on Oxford Street, Robbie is trying to find a way to save his economically struggling business alongside Kris (Robbie Wardhaugh), a spritely, enby employee who just can’t sit in a chair correctly. Through their intertwined stories of finding community away from home, alongside the spirited and melodramatic drag queen Santi (played by the scene-stealing Mat Oldaker), Robbie and Kris negotiate a future for this treasure of a store through the intrusion of heterosexual couple Charmaine and Andy (Kayla-Rose De Sousa and Marty Quinn) on a quiet Thursday night. What follows is an intergenerational spectacle, a farce which masterfully weaves the audience through the complexities of what it means to be queer in our modern times.
Lighting changes and soundscapes are prevalent throughout the show and were executed in understated but effective ways which utilise the minimal space to pull you into the characters and their stories. A particular highlight was the ‘tea’ scene, in which the lighting turns a subdued yellow, and we watch Robbie and Kris intimately prepare cups of tea for their customers, the audience almost forgets the nature of the store we’re inside. A beautiful metaphor for the complexities of the queer community.
By the end, however, the production is in a bind. There’s a weight which both tethers and pulls down French Letters: portraying the realities of what it means to live in a heteronormative, capitalistic world, and hoping for a happy ending. What becomes of this decrepit adult store threatened by investors, is an otherworldly, televisional, never-quite-explained Deus ex machina for a band of rogues who learn to love and appreciate each other.
More than a few moments of thought begets the sad reality that the store is saved because the queer community came together… to prove to a cishet man that the queer community is important, is etched in history, is a fully fleshed out community deserving of a voice. Yet again, even this production by and for queer people succumbs to the hand of the cishet patriarchy, with just the sly and depressing realisation that “supporting the queer community is good for revenue.” This is especially relevant considering World Pride’s looming presence, and asks more questions about the eternal acceptance/assimilation debate than it answers. Maybe that’s good, though. In the continuum of queer representation, this reads as a frustrated middle child, grappling with the expectations of those before, whilst not quite free enough to just exist.
Putting the cynic in me aside, the show was hilarious, punchy, and touching in all the right ways. The cast were exceptional, the production elements were exciting and well developed, and the core of the show is poignant. If we are each other’s tunnel of love (on-site sex room), then life is the measuring tape that decides whether you pay to get into Donkey Thursdays (8 inches and it’s free!). Or something like that. There was a guy in assless chaps and I got a bit distracted.
You can catch French Letters and Leather Cleaner, presented during World Pride, at KXT from the 10th to 24th of February.