It’s June. It’s Pride month and this year celebrates the 49th anniversary of the Stonewall riots that kickstarted a revolution for LGBTQ people. It’s 51 years since homosexuality was decriminalised but it’s also 30 years since Section 28 was passed and under that law, had it not been repealed in 2003, something like the Curious Arts Festival would have never been allowed to happen.
Founded by Creative Director, Phil Douglas, in 2016, he devised Curious to fill a niche in the market. Phil was inspired by events like Homotopia in Liverpool and Contact in Manchester. He was driven to create something just as interesting, diverse and inclusive for the North East and celebrate the rich talent of the region’s LGBTQ community. However, just as the name of the festival suggests, it invites everybody, even those who aren’t explicitly part of the LGBTQ community but are simply “curious” about the culture, to come and join in!
The first year of Curious saw a single day and night event held at Breeze Creatives in Newcastle. The purpose of the festival was to celebrate the local LGBTQ culture and give a voice to the community. Phil ran this alone with a single assistant. In the second year, the festival lasted for five days and was spread between Newcastle and Stockton. Phil had help from a small team for the second year. This time, the festival has grown to eight days and has taken on board a much bigger team to run. With more days to fill, the festival has spread across the North East (Newcastle, Gateshead, Stockton and Middlesbrough) in July. It features a wide range of events and activities based around LGBTQ culture and aims to explore and celebrate queer culture as well as to increase visibility and community relationships. With fun events ranging from theatre, to art, to drag queen story times for kids and even a vogue ball, this year is set to be the most exciting yet!
The festival kicked off on Saturday 9th June with a taster night at Northern Stage ahead of the main festival which runs 1st-8th July. If this night was anything to go by, the main festival next month will be absolutely unmissable! Hosted by the hilarious Jonathan Mayor, dressed all in black and dripping in opulent glitter and jewels. He set the bar so high, there were tears of laughter from the very start and they didn’t stop for the whole time he was on stage. His fabulously camp charm made the audience instantly comfortable, like a best friend you haven’t seen for years. His stories about his experiences as a black, gay, adopted man left the audience screaming with laughter. An absolute genius with words and comic timing, his recollections were as gripping as they were funny and beneath the humour, there was a serious message about racism and growing up gay. Despite the darker undertones, masked by the comedy, Jonathan remained uplifting and his overall message was a heartwarming one of love and joy.
The first act introduced by Jonathan was Gladys Duffy, Newcastle’s “oldest” drag queen and most recent winner of the city’s Drag Idol competition for 2018. The competition dubbed her “S**t drag,” meaning that she doesn’t rely on glitz and glamour and can work on a budget. It’s a term that she has embraced as a compliment. Even with limited staging and props, the Eighty-something-year-old (she’s not that old really) Gladys has a story to tell and she brings it alive with an abundance of enthusiasm. She has lived her life, had countless husbands and her performance was all about that. From her miserable childhood to her happy marriage which ended in tragedy, to her next miserable marriage, she spoke of life, death, domestic abuse and murder through monologues and lip sync to camp classics like “I Will Survive” and “Que Sera Sera.”
Whenever Gladys is on stage she goes with the flow and even if things go wrong, she has a talent of just rolling with it and that makes her even more entertaining for the audience. She’s a typical down-to-earth, fun loving, occasionally crude granny and it’s impossible not to love her.
Speaking briefly to her after the show, Gladys demanded she gets a “scathing review” which is hard to write considering how good she is. However: Gladys Duffy’s constant referrals to death made the audience wish they, too, were dead. A self-confessed murderess, Gladys Duffy should be arrested on sight.
The second act, simply named Johnny the Biblical Rapper (played perfectly by Tessa Parr), began with a glow stick pointing at Johnny’s crotch and soon escalated into what felt, at first, to be a surreal performance. Everything about it was meticulously planned from Johnny’s costume: jeans and a t-shirt that should say “No More Page Three” but the “No” had been blocked out so it said “More Page Three” instead. The accent like a London Gang member, the occasionally non-sensical threads of story, linked only by rhyming words that didn’t always quite fit like a rubbish rapper who thinks they’re better than they truly are. The characterisation of this type of person we’re all too familiar with was spot on. When Johnny pulled out a picture of a ship and started talking about friendships, then read a letter addressing friends with crude “banter” and later, spoke his true feelings aside, it was the moment that really hit the hardest. Nobody has ever hit the nail on the head so accurately about fragile and toxic masculinity and how men are supposed to toughen up and hide their emotions to a point they can’t even say they love their friends. Johnny’s performance, while confusing and obscure to start, quickly became a strong, intellectual and genuinely funny study of gender stereotypes.
The third performance of the night was from AJ McKenna, a trans-rights activist and writer. AJ’s spoken word was brutal and hard-hitting. It was personal and raw, so much so that it feels wrong to say too much about it. She spoke of gender and identity and, comparing sex to violent rituals and human sacrifice, she opened up to the audience in such a way that it was uncomfortable and I mean that in the best way possible. Often the best way to make a point in theatre is to make your audience feel that way. Everything about her performance was spectacular. The flow and rhythm of her spoken word was stunningly clever. The change in speed, likened itself to an actual fight – the violence fast and cutting, the vulnerability and self-reflection, slower, more steady and touching. AJ’s stories about bullying at school and her feelings on her own identity were heartbreaking and she held the whole audience captivated. When AJ took a breath there was silence. Every single person in that theatre was completely gripped. While AJ’s story was hard to listen to it’s one that needed to be told and had to be heard.
The final act of the night was Jackie Hagan. A bright, Liverpudlian ball of energy with colourful hair and spouting obscenities. Jackie was instantly loveable. Her performance was based around her talent for poetry and her disability. Jackie lost a leg; something she is not afraid to talk about openly and she even enjoys getting her stump out to show the audience (the grand finale of her act)
Under pressure from the timing of being the final person to perform, Jackie coped very well. The show had over-run by an hour, not that the audience were complaining. Again, the audience were gripped as Jackie read us a poem she wrote about the hateful but loveable lady she shared a ward with when she was in hospital recovering after losing her leg. “You Can’t See Through Another Man’s Eyelids” was a surreal list of advice and optimistic quotes, with examples like “You are not as ugly as you think. You are a generous buffet of crisps.” or “The minimum fill line on a kettle is real.”
Following this, Jackie gave us “I Am Not Daniel Blake,’ a bleak poem about working-class life and how hard it is for people living in poverty.
This brought us into her grand finale, and the finale of the night! This involved Jackie drawing a pair of eyes on her leg with a marker pen and telling us that “It’s going to look like that miserable one off Birds of a Feather,” and the reveal did not disappoint!
It’s Jackie’s ability to laugh at herself and find humour in such a dark place that is so inspiring. She hasn’t let her situation affect her life, in fact, she has used her experiences to elevate herself to a strong position and has become a force to be reckoned with in spoken word and poetry circles. She jokes that people always say she’s “So brave,” but to be able to turn something so negative into such a huge positive is worthy of raising a glass, or in Jackie’s case, prosthetic leg to.
If you’re interested in learning more about the Curious Festival which runs 1st-8th July 2018, you can follow them on:
And for a full list of events, you can follow this link here: https://www.newcastlegateshead.com/whats-on/curious-festival-2018-p891301