A man in pink slippers and a green sequined waistcoat sits at a Yamaha keyboard adorned with stickers and a glitterball. An older man stands nearby, clad in a dirty white robe, red stilettos and heavy make-up. This father and son cabaret act-son the keyboard player, father the drag artiste-are about to relate the story of their lives, and it's a good deal darker than their attire suggests.
Writer Joel Horwood (also making his directing debut) has crafted a desperate tale of sexual and emotional anguish that is, at times, achingly sad. Michael (or Lulu, to give him his stage name) is a teenager in the Peterborough of the title when, still discovering his sexuality, he is brusquely rejected by another boy after a brief sexual encounter. Another equally fleeting dalliance with a young woman results in her becoming pregnant. Some 15 years later his son seeks him out after his mother has died. "I don't like dads, I never wanted to be one" is Michael's reaction. And so begins a fragile relationship between two damaged, needy people, neither of whom is able to be there for the other.
The story is narrated in retrospect by the pair, leaving little in the way of visual action-bar a rendition of Annie Lennox's 'There Must Be an Angel'-meaning the piece requires considerable imagination from the audience. However, Horwood's language is rich and the two actors-Milo Twomey and Jay Taylor-enact it evocatively, building to a conclusion which simmers with fraught emotion, the pair's outfits masking a well of sadness.
I ♥ Peterborough: The Stage
A bump of London overspill in the middle of the flat Fens, Peterborough is more famous for its trains than inspiring love letters. For a town at the centre of so much travel, the dreams of many of its locals are at a standstill. But in his glittering new play, Joel Horwood has penned a heartfelt note to those inhabitants who aren't simply "human cul-de-sacs".
There's more than a dose of sparkle in this story of cabaret transvestite Michael/Lulu and his son Hew. Thrust together unexpectedly, they attempt to get through life's ups and downs in a place designed to flatten them. They also form a rather good variety act - flaky Lulu flicking on the switch when a performance is needed and Hew solidly providing the ever brilliant accompaniment. He has the voice of an angel, and can do a fabulous gossipy neighbour impression too.
As always with Horwood's work, music beats through I Heart Peterborough like a pulse. The bombastic soundtrack underscores Lulu and Hew's strange and isolated suburbia. Horwood's script is full of funny touches, and he is a compassionate director.
Milo Twomey as Lulu is a fragile and fierce narrator, while Jay Taylor's Hew provides a compelling and tragic foil.
Independent - Four Stars
Five years ago Joel Horwood's adolescent drama I Caught Crabs in Walberswick won a Fringe First and transferred to London's Bush Theatre. Now the playwright, 31, has teamed up again with Ipswich's Eastern Angles on another coming-of-age yarn.
Michael/ Lulu is a lovelorn transvestite who finds himself sole guardian of the 15-year-old son, Hew, he has never met. Both are oddballs in a town that prefers flat conformity, Peterborough, a town "with the most cul de sacs in the world ever", or, as Lulu puts it "the nation's beating heart for romantic nights in".
Refusing to be hemmed in by geography, co-dependent like an eccentric cabaret duo, Lulu and Hew embark on their own bumpy voyages of self-discovery, through the ups and downs of family life, first love and coming out, to a soundtrack of Eighties dancefloor fillers.
Horwood, who also directs, has a gift for capturing place and time with clear-eyed lyricism. You can almost smell the tang of the lido, feel the sticky floors of the provincial nightclub. Milo Twomey is heartbreaking as the needy Lulu while Jay Taylor is touching as his son, a faithful backing singer with a scene-stealing voice. This is a little show with a big heart from Horwood, his coming-of-age, if you like.
I ♥ Peterborough: Broadwaybaby.com ****
The sultry tones of Billie Holliday's I'll Be Seeing You welcome us into the auditorium of Pleasance Courtyard. A man stands in full makeup and a wig cap and slowly goes through the motions of a routine. His stare is fixed and haunting. The performance that then unfolded in front of us was enchanting, engaging, and highly original. A witty and touching script from Joel Horwood taps into some really deep emotions, and Milo Twomey and Jay Taylor delivered the lines with raw heartfelt feeling.
Lovesick Michael/Lulu played with brilliance and grace by Twomey is a transvestite from the town of Peterborough, a place that revolves around conformity, who becomes the only guardian of his son, Hew, a boy that he has never met. Both Hew and Lulu refuse to be fenced in by society and, as a cabaret duo, they embark on a journey to find themselves. The journey takes us through the struggle of coming to terms with your sexuality, family problems, and unrequited love.
The show is practically non-stop dialogue, with huge sections of monologue from Twomey who commanded the audience's attention and hearts with the earnest storytelling of his unrequited love interest, Mark. The beautiful description of the painful nature of love really was highly effective. Joel Horwood taps into the wonderful yet painful realities of love - describing it as ‘doing somersaults in the shallow end' captured the audience instantly. Twoney also takes on his female and male role superbly. He easily switches from high to low pitch and is so convincing as Lulu that at points you completely forget you're watching a man. Equally, Taylor provides a touching performance as Hew and contributes much of the show's soundtrack on his piano and show-stealing vocals. With the addition of some well-known eighties dance classics, the music was a shrewdly chosen backdrop to the cheesy bars of Peterborough.
This is a show that requires concentration. It is easy to get lost in the storyline if you are not giving it your full attention, which can be quite demanding. However, it is definitely worth keeping up with the pace of the piece and, once you're used to the style of narration, it's much easier to follow. Apart from sometimes being a little hard to follow, it is an exciting, innovative piece of theatre. The two actors complement each other brilliantly and they are working with a magnificent script and direction. Horwood has a great skill in being able to create a mental image of a place or time just through cleverly written dialogue. This show is a definite must-see, but even more so it's a must-see-again.
I ♥ Peterborough: The Guardian
Joel Horwood's latest play is a little heartbreaker, a two-hander about place, identity, betrayal and unreciprocated love. Produced by Eastern Angles, the touring company that has done so much to bring theatre to the neglected east of England, it is set in unlovely Peterborough, that London overspill new town on the East Coast mainline through which everyone passes but few stop.
"Our town is the nation's beating heart of train travel," says Michael/Lulu, played by Milo Twomey, who is fantastic as a cabaret-singing transvestite. Born and raised in this town of cul de sacs, he has never left - despite the fact that Peterborough has repeatedly rejected him, even left him bloodied on its streets. There is a viciousness behind the net curtains. When Michael walks the pavements with his son, Hew (Jay Taylor), the gossips' "eyes take bites out of us".
The play is built around three different disastrous sexual encounters: Michael falls in love with his best friend, Mark, who brutally rejects him; he then fathers a son through a one-off heterosexual encounter. When a teenage Hew moves in with him, Michael must try to give him the support his own father neglected to offer. None of this is easy.
In exploring the consequences, I Heart Peterborough taps straight into the way our relationships are intimately connected with place. Accidents of birth, geography and landscape shape us as much as our private longings and desires. To escape yourself, you must first escape a location. Horwood is very good at evoking these geographies of the soul. Just as there is a split between Michael and Lulu, there is also a divide between the urban and the rural.
Despite the title, this is no love letter. Horwood's play begins as a traditional coming-of-age story but, just as Michael becomes Lulu, so this story morphs into something that is simultaneously more fragile and more brutal: a tale of unlikely fathers and needy sons, how the past reaches into the future, and how our endless quest for love makes us betray those who need us most. It is sometimes a little hard to get a handle on the storytelling, but there is no doubting the vividness of the writing or Horwood's startling ability to turn a killer phrase. Laced through with sadness and music, his story is bleak but layered with tenderness.
I HEART PETERBOROUGH at the SOHO THEATRE , LONDON: What's On Stage
Beautifully written, directed and performed.
It's no wonder this play comes to Soho with rave reviews and star ratings from top broadsheets who caught it during its Edinburgh run. I've missed Joel Horwood's previous work but I'm going to try not to miss any more.
This two-hander is a tour-de-force of the acting craft, with Milo Twomey's sensitively camp performance of the central character, Lulu, played around with brilliantly pitched diversity of character by Jay Taylor. What Milo and Joel achieve in Lulu is what reflective camp gay coming-of-age tales often miss - a complexity, layering and truth.
And you'd have thought that skittering from character to character, Jay would provide a shallow foil, but he creates instant character with surprising depth and resonance. Then he tops it all in creating his stunning main serio-comic character, Lulu's son Stephen, renamed Hew.
But of course none of this would be possible without the bedrock of Horwood's elegant, clever script and his knowledgeable direction. He drops in poetic phrases such as "love that feels like doing somersaults" or "we take over the town square and fill it with anger" that feel genuine for the characters.
And here's the skill; he creates a play based entirely in an apparently soulless place like Peterborough with a pretty doomed and shallow group of characters. But he elevates it to true drama, giving the work a lyrical eternity and global resonance. I kept thinking Tennessee Williams.
It's not perfect. 70 minutes is too short to explore this range of issues. There is indulgence in the ‘escape route' comedy at times where there should have been the confidence to dive deeper into the emotion; and the end goes on too long. But these are quibbles. I cared deeply and wanted to know more. A fine piece of short theatre.
I ♥ Peterborough: A Younger Theatre
As you traipse down the stairs to find a seat, the stage in Pleasance Two seems to be set for a kind of Eighties cabaret act. Lulu (Milo Twomey), a drag queen, is made up but not yet dressed for the part, though her pianist, Hew (Jay Taylor), is already seated at his electric keyboard in a spangly jacket that catches the light. But Hew and Lulu are an act like no other. They are father and son.
At first, Taylor seems to be there only to assist Twomey in his central performance, helping Lulu to dress, filling in voices and sounds as she tells us her life story, beginning with the moment of her birth. But as the play continues, Hew enters the proceedings in his own right, and I ♥ Peterborough becomes something truly spectacular.
Lulu's real name is Michael and he is a man who has grown up gay in Peterborough, a bleak little town in the east of England with, Michael tells us, more cul-de-sacs than any other city in the world. It is quite literally a dead-end town, but Michael shows no great desire to escape. He works dead-end jobs, goes out, lives in the house where he lived with his own father until his death - and then Hew arrives, the result of Michael's awkward, emotionally-charged teenage fumble with a slightly mad childhood friend. Stephanie brought Hew up alone for fifteen years before dying in accident and now he has come to stay.
Upon being told that that I ♥ Peterborough is about the relationship between a gay drag act and the son he has only just met, I thought I could foresee what was coming: a rather worthy hour about two men not understanding each other's perspectives, a son struggling to deal with his father's sexuality and so on. But Joel Horwood has written and directed something that is so much more beautiful and complex than that. Hew and Lulu's relationship is not antagonistic, not based around a failure to communicate; they understand each other better than anyone else in the world ever could. This is the problem. The relationship they form is so co-dependent that it is difficult for Hew to grow outside of it, and as much as they love each other they cannot control one another, and let each other down.
I ♥ Peterborough may well be the most moving play I have seen at the Fringe. This is not because it takes itself particularly seriously - everything about it is done with great humour - but rather because the relationship between the two central characters is so sensitively drawn and so wonderfully acted. Twomey and Taylor's performances are remarkable, funny, clever and sad, with a truly impressive depth of understanding that leaves you really believing in these characters.
Eastern Angles have something genuinely very special on their hands here and it is not surprising to hear that it will be embarking on a tour after the Fringe ends. I ♥ Peterborough is a play that will stay in your mind long after you have left the theatre.
***** - 5/5 stars
I ♥ Peterborough: One Stop Arts
The first thing you witness as you take your seat at the Soho Theatre Upstairs to see I Heart Peterborough is Milo Twomey performing the slowest and saddest version of the Macarena imaginable. This somewhat sets the gentle tone for I Heart Peterborough, a show full of the creative and dysfunctional dreams of a father and son, who while providing support and love to each other are each other's ultimate downfall.
Set in Peterborough, if the title didn't spell it out enough for you (though it really should), director and writer Joel Horwood paints it as a city chock-full of cul-de-sacs, spare Capri-Suns, the obstinate working class and at least one drag queen. The perfect setting for a rather wide eyed, credulous son, Hew, to come and live with their father, Lulu, you might never say. Both characters have their eccentricities, with Hew's rather off-hand eating of a heart in science class, to impress a girl of course, and their united love of music. All oddities are set off beautifully by well timed and much appreciated one-liners that both depict the schools of Peterborough in all their splendour - "no uniform and no future" - and legendary motherly advice - "less is more and more is waste!" This humour drags the audience back down to the reality that the story isn't as far-fetched as it might at first seem and the dreams of this atypical pair are not so extraordinary, simply misled.
Lulu dreams of his first boy crush, Mark (who's name's a "doing word", genius), coming back into his life and sweeping him off his stiletto clad feet. Hew dreams of joining a band and not being slapped by the lovely girl at school for being inappropriate on a school swimming trip. Simple dreams and high hopes, but ultimately misguided forays into the never-going-to-happen world are painted.
Penny Griffin's lighting is notable for its disco ball moments, which were appropriately cheesy, and the use of simple desk lamps that the characters endeavour to light meaningful moments with, as they tell their tale. Hew's bearded and childlike face is so often preoccupied with lighting his demanding yet gentle father's face that his hilarious lines, themselves greeted with a raucous laughter, are even more humorously met with audience-aimed surprise, confusion and shock on Hew's face, a great character quirk if ever there was one. Jay Taylor creates a memorable temperament that warms the room with frankly told peculiar secrets and innocent eyes over facetious and unknowably naughty anecdotes. Milo Twomey's characterisation is well knitted together, combining the unconventional Lulu and the sensible, grown up Dad.
This show is as unconventional as it is incomparable: with a set of keyboards, crummy wallpaper and hooked sparkly dress, you are welcomed into the weird and wonderful world of the characters. A fun watch and an impressive one.
I ♥ Peterborough: The Upcoming
It's hard to express just how good Joel Horwood's writing is in this piece. Part play, part cabaret act, it is a simple, makeshift, captivating piece of theatre; an hour or so of fast and dynamic storytelling with vivid, rhythmic dialogue full of poetry.
Sharp use of dialect and social observation place the narrative so carefully in our time that it cannot fail to resonate deeply on some level with anyone who sees it.
The two central characters are beautifully crafted and equally beautifully delivered by Milo Twomey, who controls the flow of the story and niftily ad-libs, and Jay Taylor, whose performance is both utterly convincing and quite simply heart-breaking. There's also a host of supporting cast like ghosts in the room, breathed into existence with just words and helping to illustrate the story of the lives of this unconventional family, a transvestite father and his troubled son brought up in the same town, and their despair in being different in the suburbs.
Yet their re-telling of adolescence, co-dependency and disappointment are echoing sensations - we are all just running up that hill, colliding clumsily with each other as we go, conventional or otherwise. It's testament to the writing that we get to know and care about these two people so very quickly, and can enjoy this glimpsed time in their company.
Performed in the ideal venue of the rough-and-ready top floor studio of the Soho Theatre, this play will make you laugh and have you on the edge of tears. It's sad, full of humanity and anguish, but warm and endearing with a massive heart. Highly recommended.