“Gypsy Queen” is one of the hottest shows to hit the London stage this year. After sell-out successes at the Edinburgh Fringe and Dublin International Gay Theatre Festival, Manchester-born “Gypsy Queen” is currently playing at London’s King’s Head Theatre. A tumultuous and heartbreaking love story of two gay boxers, Dane “The Pain” Sampson and “Gorgeous” George O’Connell, the play is as sexy as it is thought-provoking. HISKIND caught up with the two stars of the show Rob Ward (who not only plays George, but also wrote and produced the play) and Ryan Clayton (playing Dane).
Rob, how did the show come about?
RW: Back in 2014 I wrote a short play in response to the Sochi Winter Olympics, and the treatment of Russia’s LGBT+ community. It was about two gay boxers competing at the Olympics, with one wanting to make a stand and the other not. Fast forward a few years, when I was looking for an idea for my next play, and Tyson Fury – the first ever boxing champion from a traveller background – was nominated for BBC Sport’s Personality of the Year, and soon after hit the headlines with sexist and homophobic opinions. I was shocked that the BBC did nothing about this. I immediately knew where the end point of my play was: the way the media dealt with such homophobia in sport. Once I found that, I reworked the original 2014 short play and Gypsy Queen was born.
Ryan, can you tell us a bit more about the play?
RC: Gypsy Queen is a seventy minute two hander about LGBTQ visibility in sport, specifically boxing. One of the key themes of the play is masculinity. It questions what it means to be a man. Dane and George are two “masculine” boxers who perhaps don’t demonstrate the traditional conventions of masculinity, and behave at times in a cowardly way. While Josh, the openly gay, “camp” character is often the person who behaves in the most truthful, bravest way. In many ways, Josh is the strongest man in the play.
RW: I felt it would be interesting if it was the more “feminine” characters in Dane and George’s sphere who effected their change. For Dane it’s Josh, and, similarly for George it’s his mum, Rose, who you really wouldn’t expect it from.
You’ve just mentioned four different characters, but there’s only two of you. How does that work?
RC: The play is multirole, and between us we play 10 different characters!
Impressive! So who plays Rose?
RC: That’d be me. At first I was thinking “oh my god, how do I do this?” But as soon as you get into it… You know how you get those people who pretend they don’t want to dance at parties, but once they’re into it they’re loving it? That was exactly the case with me. I just love it. It’s absolutely great fun.
RW: It’s one of the things we were looking for when casting Ryan – again going back to the idea of masculinity – I thought it’d be fun and interesting if we had this big muscle lad as the mother, just to play around with it!
As actors, what’s it like playing so many characters each night?
RW: It’s great fun, really! Growing up I loved Robin Williams, just to see what he was going to be next. I always loved doing different voices, and doing different faces. And that for me is the joy of acting: being someone completely different. There’s a lot of focus now on playing yourself all the time, particularly on screen.
RC: And you don’t often get a chance to play totally different people.
And if multirole is good enough for Angels In America, then it’s good enough for Gypsy Queen!
RW: Theatre is that one medium where the audience are expecting a transformation to a different world. It’s not capturing real life like television. Without being wanky, it is a kind of magic world where suddenly one person can change into someone else and the audience will go with it – if you do it with enough conviction!
RC: In terms of the process, we didn’t have that much time to play around with it, so it was a case of thinking about the people in my life and taking inspiration from that. You can always take inspiration from another actor’s performance, but my inspiration is from the people and the world around me.
Do you have one favourite character to play?
RW: Recently, I’ve actually really enjoyed playing Vic, Dane’s dad. There’s a moment of direct address to the audience when I play Vic. It’s great getting them involved and seeing how they react to it.
RC: For me it has to be Rose!
The two parents? How Freudian! So, you’ve just finished a run at the Edinburgh Festival. How did the play go down there?
RW: It went down really well. A big part of Edinburgh is luck, and there’s so many good plays out there that don’t get recognised. But thankfully we got lucky! In the opening weekend, we got a really good review from The List, who are one of the big reviewers in Edinburgh. As a result of getting that, our venue The Assembly Rooms billed us as one of their top-rated shows so far. It just caught fire from there, and we sold very well! We were really pleased!
What was your Edinburgh highlight?
RC: God, it all blurs into one. I’ll try to remember! There was one night when the Assembly threw a huge party, and we were in a room full of people from all around the world. That was really cool.
RW: And boxing on the Royal Mile to promote the show was fun.
RC: And then, well it definitely wasn’t a highlight, but there was one guy who caused a big fuss over the Josh and Dane kissing scene, and made a point of walking out right in the middle of the show. That was a standout moment, when we realised just how important it is for these stories to be told.
As well as Edinburgh, the show’s taken you all around the country. What’s it like living, working, travelling with each other?
RC: Fine, so long as you avoid Fantasy Football!
RW: The divorce papers are in the post. (Laughs) No, we’re grand. Honestly, it’s a pleasure. One of the key things is making sure get on with the other person. Even before I auditioned Ryan, I wanted to meet him. When you pick your team, you’ve got to know you can trust them with your show, with your baby really! And of course that includes Adam and Owen, too [Adam Zane and Owen Rafferty, Gypsy Queen’s Director and a Technician, respectively]. It’s a great team.
Your baby? So is this a family now?
RC: Oh yeah, we’re going to get dogs, aren’t we!
How charming! Have you managed to see much of the London gay scene?
RW: I may have been down to Soho a few times.
RC: I love The Yard! But with the show on at 9, a lot of places are closed already after the midweek shows.
RW: It being London, we’ve had to do the thing of allowing a good hour to get anywhere! I have huge admiration and respect for you guys who do it. You’re a hell of a lot more organised than I am!
RC: But it’s been a great month down here.
And what does the future hold for Gypsy Queen?
RW: After London, we go straight into a week’s run at Manchester’s Hope Mill Theatre. I’d say it’s an up-and-coming venue, but they’re pretty established now! They recently produced Yank, which came down to London’s Charing Cross Theatre. So we’re there from 25th-30th September, with a post-show Q&A on Monday, featuring people from the world of LGBT+ sport and the travelling community.
RC: Then next year, the caravan’s back on the road! We’ll be touring to Birmingham, Cheltenham, Stoke and Bradford. So be sure to check us out.
Any plans to return to London?
RW: It’s heavily pencilled. We’ve got another theatre looking at a run later next year, so we’re not done yet! Watch this space…
You can catch Gypsy Queen at London’s Kings’s Head Theatre every night at 9pm until September 23rd. Then at Manchester’s Hope Mill Theatre September 25th-29th at 7.30pm and September 30th at 2.30pm and 7.30pm. Or follow the boys’ progress on Twitter @GypsyQueenTour. You can follow Rich on Twitter @richwatkinsLDN.