New show at Camden People’s Theatre to revive the vital yet overlooked history of the UK’s only dedicated lesbian centre

May 14, 2024

Camden People’s Theatre (CPT) in partnership with MIRRORBALL present GRILLS, a theatre production and interactive installation reviving the vital yet overlooked history of the ground-breaking work – and bringing to life the pioneering spirit  – of the UK’s only dedicated lesbian centre.

The Camden Lesbian Centre (CLC) began in 1982 when a group of white lesbians met via the Kentish Town Lesbian Group – a community which held regular socials at the Women’s Workshop. Meanwhile, the Black Lesbian Group (BLG) was established in 1984 to challenge the racism, sexism, and homophobia black gay women faced. In 1985, the grassroots groups merged to form CLCBLG on the agreement that the management committee comprise of at least 50% black lesbians and that the BLG remains an autonomous group.

Finding a permanent venue for the combined group proved difficult; with Margaret Thatcher abolishing the Greater London Council, core supporters were stripped of their power, ongoing funding issues plagued the group and they also contended with the Government’s Section 28 legislation – the ‘criminalisation of the promotion of homosexuality’. Finally in 1986, the CLCBLG was granted the licence for an old retail space – despite mass resistance, extreme hostility, and a public attack from members of the tenants’ association.

Protests included a petition highlighting ‘the moral danger’ to ‘young girls going to school in the near vicinity’. Even in the face of such adversity, the CLCBLG centre ran for years, welcoming lesbians of any ethnicity, age, or ability. Lesbians from all backgrounds formed a tight-knit community and came together to protest, party, learn about herstory, pick up craft skills, and go on cultural outings. In the early 1990s, funding became unsustainable and the space that served as a safe haven for so many, closed its doors.

With the records and the history of the group archived in Glasgow, the trailblazing effect that the organisation had on the local community has been all but forgotten. But, with GRILLS, (a term affectionately used for ‘girls” within the 1980s London lesbian community), archived materials, imagined relationships, real protests, and the palpable queer joy unearthed from found artefacts are brought together in a powerful performance. The production delves into the significant impact of the CLCBLG and poses urgent questions about cultural memory, representation, and progression within the LGBTQ+ communities.

Why have the stories of such a critical institution been moved over 400 miles away to Glasgow? What really happened at ‘Camden Dykes Get Your Claws Out’? Can we imagine a future where LGBTQ+ and BIPOC voices are truly seen & heard? How do we truly progress when we struggle to connect with our elders and can’t learn from our past? Do we always have to start again? What does progress mean if we can’t build on what’s come before? GRILLS confronts these issues head-on, considering the effects of such displacement on collective memory and cultural identity, and rekindling a connection with a past that continues to resonate deeply in the present struggles and triumphs of the queer community.

GRILLS confronts the parallels between the 1980s and 2024: the rise of fascism, the policing of LGBTQ+ rights and the closing of essential community spaces, and asks, what do we miss by being unable to gather freely, then and now? Interrogating the structures that govern public services and the silencing of marginalised groups, GRILLS is a show about intergenerational queerness.

Sixty per-cent of London’s queer spaces have closed in the past decade. And the LGBTQ+ clubs we have left are still primarily considered spaces for gay men. Sometimes people make the argument that queer spaces are reducing because we’re becoming more inclusive as a society, but that takes away from the fact that queer spaces give those who visit them a sense of belonging where they can be their complete real selves. Camden Borough’s free spaces – essential for marginalised groups as places to gather and share – have been decimated by fires, mandatory pricing and gates. When othered histories aren’t saved and we struggle to meet our predecessors, archiving becomes political.

GRILLS confronts the parallels between the 1980s and 2024: the rise of fascism, the policing of LGBTQ+ rights and the closing of essential community spaces.

CPT’s Artistic Director Brian Logan says: “At a time when queer spaces are under critical pressure for survival, what better story to tell than this one – which invites reflection on a different period in queer consciousness, and asks searching questions about history, solidarity and legacy.”

Company Co-Directors and writers Chloe Christian and Olivia Dowd met with members of the CLCBLG to hear their stories first-hand. Chloe says: “We interviewed a woman whose partner, who had passed away 15 years earlier, had been very involved with the BLG. We had a great conversation with her, learning about their experiences and lots of information about her partner, the group and their involvement in it.

“Then in the rehearsal room, I had photos out from the archive and one of the cast members asked about her, and we were able to describe this person’s whole life; everything they did at BLG, everything they did afterwards, her publications and her work in academia. It really felt like we had reached her and had an insight into her life – someone who had done something small but huge.

“We had been able to get a real insight into a giant on whose shoulders we now stand. They made a significant difference to what we now have and it was a pleasure to share that with the team.”

GRILLS is at Camden People’s Theatre, London from Tuesday 4 – Saturday, 22 June, 7pm with a matinee on Saturdays at 3pm. Tickets HERE