The Burnley Buggers’ Ball

To mark the 50th anniversary of the Sexual Offences Act, LGBT History Month bring two plays set in the seventies to Burnley.  I could have seen these in Manchester the previous night, but seeing them in their original setting is so much more powerful.  The train to Burnley winds its way out of Manchester, passing through dramatic green valleys and small towns, past cream stone buildings, the constant drizzle perfect for the cotton mills of the past.  The two plays bring to life an unexpected part of Burnley’s history in the Central Library.

The Burnley Buggers’ Ball, by Stephen M Hornby, recounts a political meeting held at the library, to discuss the opening of a private gay club in the town.  The key character is Allan Horsfall, ‘the grandfather of LGBT rights in the UK’, who forever regrets not speaking out or standing up at the event, and yet this is partly what shaped his activism.  Cleverly playing with time, the audience form the meeting and the actors appear from within the seated mass.  There are moving personal moments and larger issues effectively shape the context.  There’s a good balance to the points presented, and it’s ultimately a very thought provoking piece, with strong characters.

Burnley’s Lesbian Liberator, by Abi Hynes, tells the story of Mary Winter, sacked for wearing a badge.  Her union fail to support her and she decides to fight back.  Lighter in style, but again effectively playing with time, this is a tricky play as Mary never achieves her aims.  But as the audience follow Mary and her two friends to demonstrate in the space in front of the library, the impassioned speeches stress that this is a fight that is never won.

In today’s climate of intolerance both here and in the US, there is much more resonance in the material than just a historical play.  Effective both in content and staging, the two plays reinforce the ongoing debates about the rights of every individual.  Despite being set over forty years ago, how much have prejudices really changed?

Theatre lover, amateur director, occasional actor, writer.

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