Sam Harrison, West End musical theatre performer, has written a play largely about himself and gay loves of his life. He tells Brian Butler why.
At the age of five, in Sydney, Australia, Sam Harrison was taken to ballet classes by his rugby-playing father.“ He saw I was a creative child, and he introduced me to the golden age of Hollywood musicals of the 1930s, 40s and 50s,“ and the dye was clearly cast.
“I decided at age seven that musical theatre was what I wanted to do.” His play Love Is Only Love deals, among other things, with his teenage lover, but importantly for Sam, it’s interlaced with those Hollywood musical romantic songs he grew up with. “I saw these films as a blueprint for how relationships should be.”
Fast forward to 2017 when Sam became fully engaged in the celebrations to mark the 50th anniversary of decriminalisation of sex between men. “It was a turning point in my life as a gay man. I was confronted by lots of personal stories, and a realisation of how much I owed to earlier generations. I was fascinated by how many of the stories were happy, sexy, romantic and loving, whereas the popular image of these relationships was often tragic.”
“I thought there might be a piece of theatre that reflected that happiness – but no! Often the gay stories we know are of sexual empowerment, but also of danger, violence and death, and often a caricature of gay people for entertainment value. If straight people can have Romeo and Juliet, why can’t we?”
He told his friend, the director Jason Morell, who bet him £100 that he couldn’t write such a happy story in two weeks. “I needed the money so I wrote it. I delved into my own experiences. It’s a true story of my search for love between the ages of six and 14. I discovered my teenage diary, which itemised my first real relationship with a boy called Marc. We were 14 and at the Arts Educational School, London. It depicted the exultation and also the fear I felt. There was no shame, just the fear that Marc might not really love me!”
“That’s the heart of the play. Marc’s seen it and liked it. He’s become a champion of the show. That was important, the story also belongs to him. I’ve reappropriated some of the best love songs of Hart, Porter and Herman and rescued them from the mouths of women.”
The show, directed by Jason Morell, had its first workshop at the Other Palace in Victoria thanks to director Paul Taylor-Mills. Then, at the Pride Festival, it got a full staging, but then went on hold as Sam went into the cast of Les Mis for a year.
In February 2019 it was staged for eight performances at the Other Palace, and the audiences aged 14 to 92 loved it.
“I realised that it talks to all sorts of people and reminds them of their relationships, gay or straight, or just within a family.”
The next outing is at Chichester’s Minerva Studio on February 5 & 6, and a UK tour is being planned ending with another London airing.
Asked to give advice to that five-year old ballet boy, Sam doesn’t really have any. “Everything that has led up to today has made me who I am. The past is the past but it’s made me who I am so I accept it. I wouldn’t change a thing.”
“The show is partly a love letter to Marc and what he allowed me to experience: the heart he opened in me, and how we’ve been allowed to go on and love other people. I’ve now got the writing bug,” he tells me between his performances as a gay Tin Man in the Leeds Playhouse production of The Wizard Of Oz.
“I never thought I had anything to say. But there are other stories to tell, less personal than my own narrative.“ They include climate change, a story about children and one about the West Bank. “And Jason has challenged me to write a book about magic.”
His bio includes the skills of puppetry and knitting – how come? “I was in Avenue Q in the West End and I understudied everyone so got to love puppets.”
And knitting? “My grandmother taught me. When I was in the ensemble of Phantom I had a lot of time between scenes and I knitted. I knitted a border collie for my partner David because he’s allergic to dogs.”
“It’s important to keep creative. Actors do a lot of waiting; for shows to come along, or for auditions. Your only power is to say no. Being in control of my own creativity is liberating.
“Playing myself in Love Is Only Love, it’s important to be truthful. I have to consider myself as a character, not just me; Jason has really helped me with this. There’s something very vulnerable about playing myself and honouring what I’ve written.”
Love Is Only Love, Wed 5 (7.45pm), Thur 6, (2.45pm & 7.45pm) at Minerva Theatre, Chichester
PO19 6AP, Box office: 01243 781312.
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