A regular theme of new writing for theatre is the coming-out story, with writers regularly reflecting on their formative gay experiences. But is there anything new to say about it? Or at least a new way of saying it? How about a musical featuring a troubled teen from 1988 time-travelling in his wardrobe to the present day to compare notes with the boy now living in his 2018 bedroom?
Closets The Musical, a new show which premiered at Manchester’s Hope Mill Theatre earlier this month, is not your average gay story. I wonder, is it a bit like Dr Who in drag?
“That’s a great way of describing it,” laughs Sam Retford who plays Henry, one of the leads. “My character is in a very dark place struggling with his sexuality, his self-expression and who he wants to be. His wardrobe takes him to the year 2018 where he meets Ben [Lloyd Daniels] who is having similar issues. They go off on this wonderful time-travelling adventure around the universe to different times of gay significance where they meet lots of interesting people.
“They’re both finding themselves in completely different ways. Trying to deal with your sexuality in 1988 is very different to dealing with in 2018. There are still problems, but they present themselves and are tackled in various different ways. We showcase this, and you get to see a really nice contrast between Henry and Ben. Serious issues have affected both of them such as homophobic bullying and feelings of hopelessness.”
The piece was originally a half-hour short film by Lloyd Eyre-Morgan and Neil Ely. The pair have now expanded their story to a full-length musical with a score by Ashley M. A. Walsh. Has entering the world of the musical been a challenge for Retford?
“Massively so,” he admits. “I did some amateur stuff growing up but this is my professional musical debut and it’s totally different to anything I’m used to. Learning the script alongside the singing and choreography was daunting at first, plus I had to learn all the rules of time travel, so it’s been a lot of work.
“I’ve gained some wonderful new skills, though, and that has been amazing. Being surrounded by such a great cast, all well versed in musical theatre has been an education in itself. I’ve learned so much from them about vocal production and the best ways of using the voice. It’s been particularly rewarding that they’ve told me my vocals have improved over the whole period we’ve been together because singing is not my main job by any means. I’ve always been just an actor, and this has given me a whole new appreciation for musical theatre. It’s bloody hard work.”
He adds: “I hadn’t really thought it through at the start, I just figured, ‘great, a musical, that’ll be really cool’. I didn’t fully realise that my character doesn’t get a scene off. He’s pretty much there throughout the show so it’s a really full on role. It’s so nice, after coming out of six months of TV work, to just be based here singing and dancing onstage at Hope Mill which is a venue I’ve always wanted to perform in. I still get nervous just before the show starts but that’s normal and part of it for me.”
Even now, much is made about gay roles or same-sex relationships on the screen. Soaps regularly introduce new characters as ‘gay’ as if that’s all that defines them. Shouldn’t it just be part of the drama?
“Absolutely,” Retford agrees. “For me, Closets isn’t a gay musical, or a gay storyline, it’s just a love story. What we’re all striving towards is for people to just turn on the telly and say, ‘did you see that new drama about that couple?’ regardless of whether it’s a same-sex pairing or not. They’re just referred to as a couple, nothing else. We’ve still got a way to go until that’s the norm but, as an actor now, it definitely feels less like I’m going to play a ‘gay’ character, more just a guy who happens to be in love with another guy. All of my jobs this year have been LGBT-based and there’s still a responsibility attached to that but it’s something that I hope is happening all over now in a very positive way.”
One of the jobs Retford refers to is playing the sexually fluid Corey in Channel 4’s school drama, Ackley Bridge. As far as Retford is concerned, he harbours no fears of being typecast.
“A good role is a good role and that’s it,” he believes. “It’s a privilege that I’m being allowed to play these parts because people wouldn’t have been able to do so 15 or 20 years ago as the roles weren’t so prevalent. The characters I’ve played are who they are. Corey is a perfect example of someone who’s not gay and not straight, he just loves people and for me that is a more important message. So many people don’t fit into a specific box and they wonder if that’s a problem or whether they can just be themselves.”
The second series of Ackley Bridge has just finished after covering a vast range of different issues. With its compelling cast of characters and multiple storylines (“you’re knackered by the end of an episode”) it’s clear that Retford believes there’s plenty of potential left for more episodes.
“It’s early in the day and we haven’t heard anything, but there’s so much scope for that show. The 12 episodes in series two have given the audience so much and covered such a broad spectrum in each 55-minute show. There’s been something for everyone. The series has been left open and there are so many more directions each character could take allowing the writers to explore even deeper. We’ve featured a lot of issues and messages and the series is a very good use of a voice.”
Retford was born and brought up in Australia. He came over the UK with his family when he was young but, aside from the sunshine, he doesn’t miss birthplace.
“I’ve always called Manchester home. I love it over here and it’s where my family is.
“Also, there aren’t really the same arts career paths in Australia as there are in the UK. It all started for me at school. I was the loud kid, so teachers put me in the front for every assembly and school play. I just fell into it that way and started also doing plays outside of school. I never thought it was something I could make money out of though. I initially wanted to be something like a marine biologist believe it or not. I ended up going to acting classes at The Lowry, picked up a small role in an online Hollyoaks spin-off and from there developed a taste for it as a viable career and just decided to go for it. Luckily it worked, so far anyway.
“I’ve had such a good run this year and there are other projects lined up for next year too, so I’m very lucky that I can take some time out after Closets, have a break and catch up with friends and family. Then it’s panto in December which will be great fun to do. I’m only 19 so I’m not really worried. If something comes along then great.”