by Anandita Abraham | March 16, 2023
Three-quarters of the way through the queer rock musical, BARE, at the Keble O’Reilly Theatre, the shoulders of the man seated across from me started shaking violently – he was crying. This wasn’t the response I expected to a musical opening mid-prayer to the number ‘There’s a Bender Among Us’.
BARE broadly follows the romance between Peter and Jason, who navigate a lonely and stifling final year in Catholic boarding school. Their secret relationship claws at the choreographed heteronormative school environment, building up to heartbreak and self-destruction. Within this set-up, there’s a lot going on plot-wise. Nadia struggles with her body image. Ivy is slut-shamed. Cue raves, casual homophobia, toxic friendships, teenage pregnancy. A student offers an audience member a vape pen and Jason stops to take a BeReal. It feels like the pages of this book are well-thumbed – an ever-so-slight variation of the same Netflix show tropes. “Well, is it cliché,” a friend asks me during intermission, “or are we?”
It doesn’t matter that we know what’s coming next in the plot of BARE. A simple story about rejection and falsehood is carried by an extraordinary cast. Tam-McMillan’s performance as a Peter who tries and fails “to play the straight man” is unforgettable: his voice is chilling and needs nothing to stand on. Eleanor Dunlop gets by far the loudest applause for a solo as Peter’s mother, Claire, after she refuses to let her son come out to her. Matt’s (played by Declan Ryder) harmonies with Peter make ‘Are You There’ the show’s best duet, and Eliza Hogermeer’s voice (as Tanya) is versatile and masterful. Zoe Shum’s performance as Ivy threatens to steal the show, taking full ownership of daunting scenes. We can feel the male gaze – the pretty-popular girl’s mask taken off and then worn again. These performances add depth where the writing is otherwise lacking. What is missing in the sometimes patronising, jargon-filled discussions about body negativity is a reckoning with how consuming fixations become. But here, Eleanor Bogie’s portrayal of Nadia, “the fat girl [who] can’t play Juliet” is the saving grace. Her Nadia is both honest and bitter – at one point she uses the audience as her mirror, fidgeting with her clothes for an angle or body that fits.
BARE becomes explicit quickly, as any story featuring repression should. Secrets get out eventually: a cruel and abrasive Jason has been with a boy, left him, got Ivy pregnant, and lied about it all. The institutional church provides only pitiful smiles and deliberate vagueness when turned to, and we remember that this is always a story about God, about all the murder of individuality and adolescence made in his name.
After months of rehearsals, the dance, movement, and fight scenes are assertive. The stage feels like a keyhole to Peter’s mind. I am left hoping I could see the band at least partially – they do justice and more to a diverse score. In the final minutes, after confessing his eternal love for Peter, Jason overdoses at the school production. His death feels unnecessarily abrupt for a controversial character and the transition to mourning could be better when drawn rather than blackened out. Nonetheless, the theatre is overcome, a far cry from the giggle at Peter’s early admission that “it’s tough to argue with a hard-on.” I look over at the sniffling audience member and realise that too much of BARE is a true story. Tender performances bare open wounds – an ongoing curriculum of homophobia, self-hatred, the ache of feeling unseen. I leave the room convinced – Romeo and Juliet is a queer love story.
Words by Anandita Abraham.
Photo from Triple Cheque Productions.