17th April 2021

Love, Shame and the Chemsex Epidemic

chemsex epidemic
Tom Wright

In the summer of 2016, I sat amongst a crowd of gay men, most of them friends, in a theatre in Islington. House music pumped through the sound system. Onstage, five guys, semi-naked, partied before us. The audience exhaled nervous giggles and gossipy whispers as the lights shifted. The piece was 5 Guys Chillin’ by Peter Darney, and as each character spoke verbatim, recounting their relationship to drugs, sex and the powerful combination of the two, the tension was palpable.

The King’s Head Theatre has been committed to championing LGBTQI+ voices for many years, but I respect them most for being amongst the first to stage plays about the Chemsex crisis in London.

Don’t get me wrong; it wasn’t news to my friends and I. But there’s something crucial in the act of being represented through stories that has such a powerful effect. In that intimate venue there was no avoiding the stark reality of the scene.

Skip forward a year and the King’s Head Theatre delivered again by housing Patrick Cash’s eloquent The Chemsex Monologues, which weaved four fictional narratives, caught up in the party. Carefully handled, the piece guided us through intrigue, laughter, joy, then fear, heartbreak and loss. Discussions were stilted in the bar after the show. A friend of mine got on his phone, sent a few texts and quickly perked up. ‘Who wants to come to a party?’ he said. And we were off.

This swift segue provoked, compelled and inspired me to broach this subject in my own work. I asked myself – what’s the next part of this conversation? How do we continue to explore this behaviour without feeding the same shame that drives so many gay men, from Oscar Wilde through Joe Orton to myself, to act self-destructively? And as importantly, what about those of us who have managed to survive? I wanted to offer hope. So I set out to write a story of recovery.

With the introduction of new drugs, both legal and otherwise, the entire landscape of sexual interaction has shifted in the LGBTQI+ community.

Working with director, Rikki Beadle-Blair, we found a dramatic moment where all of these issues collide. The moment we have sex with someone for the first time.

This exciting premise became both satisfyingly simple and thrillingly complex. Two guys, one bed, real time over one evening. They’ve been dating for a while, having made a pact to do things the old fashioned way; no sex for the first three months. And tonight is the night. But first they need to navigate the labyrinth of issues that obstruct us from being ourselves and trusting someone else; personal values, political differences, past traumas, drug reliance or HIV discordance. All the things that lurk undetectable within us.

I don’t know the solution to the Chemsex epidemic. But I do know what drives many gay men into darkness.

We all recognised that shame sitting in the King’s Head Theatre back in 2016. The conclusion we’ve reached is that the first step we must take back towards ourselves is love. We must truly accept who we are, everything we have experienced and love ourselves not in spite, but because of it. That’s the message of Undetectable– our roller-coaster ride towards love. Now we’re excited to see how it’s received both by our community and beyond, and for this vital conversation to continue.

Published in Collaboration with King’s Head Theatre:

King's Head Theatre

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Also By Kings Head Theatre:

What Do You Do? Artistic Director – Adam Spreadbury-Maher

Tennessee Williams & Southern Belles at King’s Head Theatre

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The King’s Head Theatre was established in 1970. Passionate about championing ethically produced fringe theatre, we are known for our challenging work and support of young artists. Last year 116,151 audience members saw a show of ours: 44,607 at our 110-seater home on Upper Street and 71,544 elsewhere. At our home in Islington we had 774 performances last year of 95 different shows. We are committed to fighting prejudice through the work we stage, the artists and staff we work with and by producing work for minority audience groups. We believe in fair pay for all on the fringe and create accessible routes for early career artists to stage their work; work we are passionate about. Last year we announced the theatre is on the move. Subject to a fundraising campaign, the King’s Head Theatre will move into a custom-built space in the heart of Islington Square, directly behind its current home securing the future of the venue for generations to come.

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