New play unlocks shocking back stories of London’s homeless minorities

London’s glossy old Leadenhall market is a self-styled anachronism. A curvaceous sweeping hotbed of city boy banter, specialist fountain pen shops (where would we be without them?) and those wincey Dickensian shoe shines where bankers can smile back at themselves from their brogues before hitting the office and firing up the Solitaire that is their soul.

By weekend The City is a ghost town, deserted by its workers in favour of leafy suburbs, Battersea bach-pads and cloud-covered high rise. Hole in the sand or wool over the eyes? Foxtons sell it all. Walk through on a Sunday and you might spot a promo shoot for a Japanese wedding if you’re lucky, but aside from that Leadenhall is just homeless people, huddled in doorways, despised and unexplained.

How fitting then that prize-winning playwright Alexis Gregory has chosen Leadenhall Market to host his latest play ‘Safe’, revealing the real life back stories of four young homeless people – in their own frank words. Oh – and with typical Alexis Gregory edge, not only are these real life characters all homeless, but they all happen to be gay or transgender.

Why focus on LGBT homeless people? “Because it turns out a quarter of London’s homeless members are just that” says Gregory “A recent Albert Kennedy Trust report revealed that 25% of young homeless or at-risk people who were surveyed identified as LGBT”. The term ‘at risk’ means “sort of homeless”, but is nothing to be flippant about. One at-risk character in the play is a doomed teenage orphan, thrown into the so-called care of a homophobic foster family who sometimes choose to abuse and at other times simply leave their foster child locked out of the house. And so ‘Safe’ places a finger to that taboo bruise… the origins of “homelessness”

Of course homeless gay people are unlikely to bare much resemblance to the glitzy, confident well-heeled gay people that we see laughing on television. So too might we be unrecognisable to our friends if we tried living in hiding and sleeping outside, for years.

“The media has a tendency to mainly reflects those creating it” says Gregory, “So in my plays I strive to give a voice to under-represented people. Cultural institutions have a duty to be more representative and I hope ‘Safe’ shines some hot light on this”

He conducted interviews with four young homeless LGBT people, their stories form the basis of the play. But as anyone who saw or read Alexis Gregory’s last play Slap will expect, there’s a lot more going on. Certainly don’t expect an hour of violins. “The play isn’t one of these talking-heads verbatim plays” Gregory tells Wonderland. “I asked my interviewees why they were letting me interview them and the answers are actually very interesting. So I’ve built that into the play too, it’s almost a play within a play. And then we’ve added live music and poetry from queer artists. Robert Chevara who is directing the play has created something very special and unexpected”

Transgender treasure Riley Carter Millington is among the cast too, having recently left East Enders where he was the first and only transgender actor to have enjoyed a lead role on British television. “I’m so thrilled and proud to work with Riley and have Riley in our fantastic cast” says Gregory. “It’s shocking how transgender men basically don’t exist, and so Riley is this exciting force out there changing things. Similarly POC voices are still very marginalised” he adds “it’s not just in gay media but across the board. One of the play’s characters is Samuel, a Nigerian-born gay man whose family want to ‘cure’ him of his homosexuality and so couch surfing and taking to the streets is the lesser of two evils.

Homelessness in London seemed to outwardly spiral under Boris Johnson’s mayorship. Hopefully now that London has a Mayor who has been elected on credentials rather than showmanship, we might see some much needed change. In the meantime, Safe is making a show of these important issues.

Nobody should be homeless, but it’s a horrifying reality that we too often choose to ignore, explain away or unknow. Homelessness is too much for one Londoner to tackle, but together it’s a situation we can solve. ‘Safe’ by Alexis Gregory is prizing open this prickly issue, using an hour of careful entertainment as a much needed excuse to re-open the debate. Each performance is followed by a Q&A, details of speakers are listed online here.

Some tickets are still available for this limited run.

Safe is currently on this week at London Theatre Workshop.

Jack Cullen

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