Interview: J. Daniel Luther

This week we ran a Q&A with J. Daniel Luther, one of the founders of ‘Queer’ Asia, a network and platform formed of queer identifying scholars, academics, activists, artists, and performers. They have organised a series of film screenings to take place online over the next couple of months, so do read on to find out more about the this brilliant platform and the upcoming screenings.

TW: Sexual Assault and Violence

AT: Tell us a little bit about ‘Queer’ Asia, and what you set out to do as an organisation… 

DL: We are a network and platform formed in late 2015 that focuses on the intersection of queer and LGBTQ studies in Asia and its diaspora. We have organised 3 international film festivals, 3 major conferences, 2 art exhibitions, and last year held our first ever summer programme, all without charging our attendees and participants. The main objectives of ‘Queer’ Asia developed over the duration of this work, and include creating an accessible and inclusive space for inter-Asia dialogue on LGBTQ issues and queer theory. Our focus is on nurturing this space where academia sits in conversation with art, advocacy, and activism to enrich each field but also to continue to destabilise and transcend limited national or ethic contexts for collaboration and thought.

AT: You are one of the four founders of ‘Queer’ Asia, how did it all start and how did you go about setting it up?

DL: My Ph.D research focused on gender and sexual norms in South Asia at SOAS, and I had presented a lot of this work at conferences on South Asia and at LGBTQ/ Queer Theory conferences elsewhere. However, by the end of my 2nd year I shared a sense of exclusion at such conferences alongside other people in my cohort working on a similar intersection. Some of us felt that a space was needed where our knowledge and research was not marginalised. It was these exclusions that led to the need to set-up ‘Queer’ Asia as a space where not only was research like ours fruitfully engaged with, but where we were also able to account for Western centricity of knowledge production on LGBTQ issues. This was a sentiment that was shared across the 500 odd participants who attended our first conference and lead to the ‘Queer’ Asia events being an annual thing over the past five years. Many participants at our events at King’s College London, University College London, SOAS, The British Museum, and even the University of Warwick have told me of their happiness and learning having attending our events.

AT: What have been the highlights for you of being a founder and helping to run this platform?

DL: The best part has been meeting and learning from so many fantastic and amazing people – filmmakers, artists, activists, and academics – working on issues of critical importance to LGBTQ people and communities globally. The learning curve has been extremely rewarding as I have learnt so much from contexts and communities that lie outside of my own knowledge, research, and experience. I enjoy the film festivals particularly as we get sent so many amazing films that you would never see through mainstream channels, including some LGBTQ film. The sad bit is that we can never screen all of them!

AT: Have you met any challenges?

DL: I can’t say it has been an easy ride at all. The work we do at ‘Queer’ Asia is all voluntary, but is often five or six jobs rolled into one. Some days I’m a website developer, some days I’m the social media manager, some days I’m a discussant or a chair, and sometimes I’m researching on contexts that are not my area of expertise in order to host a talk or to put out a post that is sensitive to context and in support of a movement. At all times it is also a lot of hard work to ensure we’re putting together events that are accessible, that are meaningful, and support people, including our present COVID-19 Community Support Screenings. Doing all of this for the past five years, alongside finishing up a Ph.D. and holding down part time jobs to pay for that Ph.D. has definitely not been an easy ride for me or for many of the people who’ve stepped up at different times and those who continue to run ‘Queer’ Asia.

My biggest challenge has been trying to carve out time in all to also try and put together work that follows a publishing based career trajectory in contemporary academia that only rewards the work of the individual through its short-sighted Research Excellence Framework. In situations like this I’m thankful to centres like Queer@King’s at AHRI, King’s College London that do so much with limited means to support the work of activists such as through their ‘Activist in Residence’ Programme. It really puts into context the shoddy policies of the government decimating the higher education sector and short-changing the role of the university within society.

AT: You are hosting a series of online film screenings through June and July, which screenings are you most excited about and why?

DL: In our 2017 film festival we screened the film Slay by Cha Roque, a Filipina filmmaker. Cha introduced us to Floyd Scott Tiogango, a trans-androgynous genderqueer Filipino activist who is the main protagonist of Slay and whom we interviewed for our book ‘Queer’ Asia: Decolonising and Reimagining Gender and Sexuality (2019). During this interview for a chapter in our book we learnt of the film Call Her Ganda by the filmmaker PJ Raval on the movement to seek justice for the murder of Jennifer Laude a trans woman. Jennifer Laude was sexually assaulted and murdered by a US Marine, although the courts termed it a homicide. Since then we have been trying to find a way to screen this film in a way that helps us do more to support this movement against continued US racist and military imperialism. In this context I’m happy about being able to screen Call Her Ganda.

But equally all the films that we are screening come from the transnational connects we are part of and through which we continue to understand and resist the scale of injustices, violence, and oppressions of queer people everywhere. So I would recommend that everyone take out an hour or so (they’re all short films) to watch these and support these independent filmmakers working in and through communities continuing to face injustices and the impact of global inequalities.

AT: What’s your future vision for ‘Queer’ Asia?

DL: That’s a hard one, and I think as things go it depends more on the many people who come together to run it than one persons vision. I do hope that we leave a lasting impact on the various fields in which we work.

To find out more visit http://www.queerasia.com. ‘Queer’ Asia also published a book last year which you can buy here.
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Review: Glitch

CW: Ableism and discriminatory language

Written and Performed by Krystina Nellis
Produced by Studio Odder and Chronic Insanity

Runs to 15th March at Vault Festival, London

Glitch is an open depiction of an individual’s journey of self-discovery and empowerment. It just so happens that this particular protagonist has autism. Kelly, a self-proclaimed ‘weird’ person, is trying to discover who she is beyond the labels. Stuck in a small hometown, where having autism leaves you open to being called, “retard” and “psycho”, insular Kelly is trying to find the courage to make a change; despite the fact that clinging to the familiar is, in her words, “a design feature of” her “people”. Video games bring consistency, dependability and colour to Kelly’s world. A metaphor brought to life beautifully through the contrast of the stark, minimal set of a black chair and black television, invigorated by Kelly’s words on screen. Characters and script are reimagined into a colour, retro-game style display throughout the performance. This inclusive yet colourful addition helps to give the show a much-needed source of uniqueness. I would have liked to have seen this concept taken further. There are some truly heartfelt moments in Glitch including when Kelly loses herself to dancing in a nightclub. One can’t help being moved at Kelly enjoying and unashamedly being herself. This is extended further to when we hear snippets of her budding relationship with Maisie – the gamer with the pink hair. It is a sweet portrayal of the beginnings of love, offering a relatable snapshot into the inner workings of Kelly’s mind. “Can I kiss you?” Maisie asks, to which Kelly responds… “I have questions.” Krystina Nellis brings an animated and somewhat frank warmth to Kelly. Her awkward comedy really added to her rendition and allowed us to follow the character journey in a truly honest way. At times, the show felt unpolished. Nellis deviates from the script; often stumbling and repeating her words. When opening the show, the delivery of the script felt rushed and one could feel the performer’s anxiety. This improved, but the performance could have benefitted from taking more space, tightening the pace and homing in the comedic timing.

Overall though, it was nice to experience an honest, autistic coming of age story. I would be excited to see more from this perspective (especially female) and feel that it is truly needed. Kelly is a genuinely intriguing character and I hope to hear more of her courage to be herself. No easy feat, but something we all have to learn, one speed running tournament at a time.

Book Now

© K. Blewett 2020

Glitch

Review: Lipstick

The Southwark Playhouse, London

4*

Tommy is scared of everything and has an anxiety disorder. Jordan is free and inquisitive but having trouble at home. Tommy likes to wear make up… Maybe Jordan does a bit too. Lipstick, directed by Ed White is an endearing and heartfelt look at identity, friendship and mental health.

Lily Shahmoon’s script explores the, at first seemingly unlikely relationship between teenagers Tommy and Jordan;  played by April Hughes and Helen Aluko. Although the script lacked some physycological depth it holds its own and is contextually and thematically strong. White’s production has the essence of recent Netflix hit Sex Education and I would go as far to say I would like to see it as a television series (including the gender swapped casting, please and thanks).

Tommy, who experiments with makeup and wearing dresses is sprung doing so by Jordan, who isn’t judgemental or phased by this. This being one in of the most poignant and refrershing elements of the production and parallels the more progressive Gen Z attitudes that we could all no doubt adopt a little more philosophy from. Tommy in turn sums the gender non-conformity up perfectly, ‘it’s just a thing I do”. Wouldn’t it be nice if all of our own society adopted these attitudes too?

A transformativde trip to Cornwall sees the relationship between the characters escalate and fall apart as they can’t communicate when they need to. Mental health, societal pressures, family and identity grappling get in the way. The height of which is a raw but perhaps slightly over explained and overdone fight between the two about Tommy’s mental health troubles.

Although gender reverse casting has been done a thousand times before (and albeit in this case it was a minority replacing a minority which is perhaps a little tricky) it still felt right and It made some kind of sense that two women should play these teenage boys. It’s understood that in a production that looked at the archetype of masculinity why not expand the idea of the gender non binary with the addition of female actors playing young men? Plus we alwaysneed more women on stage. It did feel that overall the production perhaps relied on this statement in an absence for further depth in the characters and plot. Although I do understand there is only so much you can tackle in 70 mins.

Lipstick isn’t experimental or game changing but it’s definitely slick, professional and engaging thanks to White, sound designer Charlie Smith and lighting designer Alex Lewer. It’s well acted, with Helen Aluko as the standout and although the script had its limits you’re ultimately still driven to care about these characters and to think about the landscape of identity, not just within the LGBTQI+ community but across gender and society as a whole. 

© Bj McNeill 2020

Lipstick is on at The Southwark Playhouse, London, until 28th March. Book Now.

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Image © Lidia Crisafulli

Review: MANdemic

By The Family Jewels
Omnibus Theatre 28th February 2020.

The drag king collective with the big concepts are at it again. MANdemic has a bold premise – the incels were right, feminists are trying to cancel men… and by the 31st Century they’ve succeeded. The only men left are in breeding programmes or cryogenically frozen for science, but tonight, for one night only, the women of 3019 get to witness 2020’s toxic masculinity firsthand.

Set up established, the kings introduce themselves and they all have their own contingent of fans in the audience. It’s a rowdy, supportive atmosphere, fitting for a Friday night, though there’s a strong element of preaching to the choir, there is also the sense that we might discover something new. Beau Jangles, Ben Dyldo, Dan Load, Dickie Martin, Raymond, and Sir all have their own mini acts, in between the group boyband routines which start off as great fun, although the gambit has diminishing returns.

Standout highlights include a beautifully performed, emotionally manipulative and entirely unapologetic live rendition of Justin Bieber’s Sorry by Dickie Beau and, on the same note, The ‘Fuckboi’ routine, in which the sleazy Sir courts and then repeatedly abandons a hapless woman (played by Dan Load in a tutu in a very entertaining tongue-in-cheek almost double drag) while the other boys preen and peacock in unison. It’s a witty summary of the Tinder/side piece dating scene and the collective cheer when Girl!Dan finally stands up for herself and ditches the fuckboi is the emotional pay off we all deserve, but often don’t find in a drag show.

The terrace-painted Raymond is tragically underused, delivering a brilliant poetic monologue about the loneliness of contemporary manliness and then disappearing for the rest of the show. Less confident in the group numbers, Ben Dyldo truly comes into his own as a ‘late 21st Century brotest singer’ – a latter day MRA Bob Dylan. In all, every performer has a strong set-piece in their act which, for the most part, fits with the theme, although the narrative thread is looser than I would have liked and the transitions between scenes definitely needs sharpening up. The Family Jewels are a well-balanced collective who are doing the work to make drag more relevant and use it as a tool to agitate rather than just entertain. Perhaps that’s why I was expecting a more incendiary or incisive finale. After an hour of solid drag show it peters out at the end with a confusing breakdown of the premise into a weak chant of “fuck the binary” that didn’t quite catch on. MANdemic needs some polishing, perhaps a dramaturg, but it’s work with lots to say and in our current climate we could all stand to hear it.

Sophie London @solosays

Book Review: Robbie’s Story

by Stuart Carey

‘Robbie’s Story’, writes its author Stuart Carey, has been three decades in the making, sadly the book feels very much like it got stuck there. The story of a piece of gay literature that couldn’t find a publisher is, sadly, a far too common one as it is only in the last ten to fifteen years or so we have seen a lot more hit our bookshelves and even move across into the mainstream, with perhaps one of the most popular pieces of gay fiction, Call Me by Your Name, hitting shelves in 2007. However the medium is now becoming more and more populated by exciting writing, but Carey’s story of hopeless romantic Robbie feels a little out of its depth in this modern sea of LGBTQ+ literature.

The titular story is a simple one, a coming of age tale of our young protagonist as he moves from man to man on his journey to find ‘the one’, with friends coming and going but very little drama in the way. The writing is a little repetitive and stiff with very little poetic nuance, more like a memoir than a work of fiction and perhaps if it had been released in the eighties I could forgive a lot but as a recent publication I found that there were little things that became gradually infuriating. Predominantly Carey’s constant need to call out ‘black’ characters by their skin colour without any narrative or contextual reasoning began to jump out, which again as an eighties trope would be fairly common but as a modern piece of literature, it jarred heavily and the excessive use of the phrase ‘ruddy’ made me feel that it was there as a holding place for a more believable working class slur in order to not cause offence, which when juxtaposed with graphic sexual descriptions come across as confused.

That all said, the story is fairly serviceable as a light read and offers a nice insight into the world of being a gay man in that strange time between decriminalisation and the backlash of the AIDS epidemic however the lack of protagonist or drama doesn’t keep the pages turning like one would hope. The sleeve promises blackmail and attempted murder but these plot points arise half way through and are resolved mere pages later, no drama is ever high enough to make us feel closer to the protagonist and the sex scenes aren’t tame enough to make the book suitable for a young reader and perhaps not titillating enough for an older. All of this culminates in the question, who is this book for, and I don’t think that Carey knows.

©  Harry Richards

Buy here

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Review: Don’t Talk to Strangers

The Forge @ Vault Festival, London
27th, 28th, 29th February and 1st March at 6pm

“In the beginning there was sound…”

Don’t Talk To Strangers is described by its Production Company Hot Cousin* as   “An extraterrestrial love story. A disco in a galaxy far far away. A rom-com set at warp speed” and yes to all of that. This is a  theatre experience out of this dimension but it is also about something much more human. and it utilises sound  to tell that story in a very energetic and exciting way.

The show centres around an interview with Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan. If, like me, you don’t really know who Carl Sagan was (apart from being the man who wrote the novel “Contact”) he was an American astronomer who along with writer Ann Druyan were responsible for “The Golden Record” which was a gold-plated copper disk containing sounds and images selected to portray the diversity of life and culture on Earth. Oh, and this record was launched into space.  This is really happened.

The dialogue used in the show is based on an actual interview transcript but it is recreated and remixed into a myriad of different things. The use of sound throughout the show was incredibly dynamic and adventurous as the words are looped on repeat but the performers twist and reposition them into dogs barking, the sounds of anguished crying and distortions.

The cast bounce off each other and each of the performers were a joy to watch; Elana Binysh does a great job  as interviewer to Stephanie Fuller’s “Ann” and Ally Poole’s portrayal as “Carl”.  Fuller and Poole really give their all as the loved up couple and all three are adept at navigating the changes in performance that the ever changing soundscape brings. The final cast member Madeline Lewis was the alien/space figure. She was mostly silent throughout the piece but was equally strong by her movement work.  The dance and movement was really quite beautiful.  There was a really lovely point when the entire company began to dance but in a very quiet way.  Sound is everything in this piece but they totally understood the importance of also using silence to great impact.

One niggle I had was even though this is a lively and high-energy performance, there is a challenge in keeping the momentum up with the same dialogue /scene being done over and over which I’m not sure 100% works.  The brevity of the piece as a whole (about 50 minutes) is smart as if the show was much longer I do think the repetition might be too much.

This is definitely an avant garde type show so if you like your theatre a bit more experimental, then this may well be something you’d really enjoy.

*Quite possibly the best company name I’ve heard.

© Sarah Browne 2020

For info of upcoming productions by Hot Cousin for them on Twitter @yourhotcousin

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© Hugo Bainbridge

Review: The High Table 

At The Bush Theatre until 21st March
by Temi Wilkey

The Bush theatre is brimming with anticipation at the opening night for Temi Wilkey’s debut play, The High Table. Wilkey, who already contributed greatly to the queer theatre scene as co-founder and co-director of Pecs, the Drag King collective, has penned a story full of joy, heart and lots of belly-laughs. 

The High Table opens with percussion and song, transporting us all straight to the North Star, where three ancestors are awakened from their slumber. As the ancestors try to figure out why they are called upon, we are introduced to Tara (Cherrelle Skeete), who is about to tell her parents that she is marrying Leah (Ibinabo Jack), who is joining them for dinner. Sadly, the news does not go down well and causes a rift between Tara and her parents. David Webber and Jumoké Fashola shine as Tara’s parents, always dancing the line between humour and tragedy beautifully. 

Without giving too much of the plot away, I will say that the introduction of a fourth ancestor shines a new light on Tara’s family, and shows us a different, darker side of queer life in Nigeria. Wilkey’s play does a fantastic job of questioning the history of Nigeria’s homophobic laws, as the ancestors debate what is and isn’t ‘traditional’ in their culture. This is particularly effective in a hauntingly beautiful monologue by the eldest ancestor, underscored by Mohamed Gueye’s rousing percussion. 

Another great thing about The High Table is that both Leah and Tara are portrayed by queer actors, something Wilkey found an important casting choice. It’s so rare to see a queer, black femme couple portrayed on stage, that it’s great that these parts are played by actors who truly represent this grossly unrepresented group. 

The High Table marks a strong start for Wilkey as a playwright. If you’re looking for an evening that will make you laugh, cry and maybe even dance in your seat – make sure you don’t miss this one. 

The High Table is playing at the Bush Theatre until 21st March. Book now

© Jeanne d’Hoog

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Image © Helen Murray

Review: In the Beginning

Katzpace, London

A work-in-progress by fledgling performer Marlow, the title is apt. There’s the seed of a strong concept here – in how we can find our sense of identity in adulthood by tracing back to the genesis of suppressing that identity, in acts of childhood self-preservation. That universally queer experience. Marlow’s theory is that, by doing this we can take back our narrative to rewrite our future.

Playing an exaggerated version of themselves, Marlow is an engaging performer, but a one-person show, drawing on such personal experiences, should feel more honest than this does. Maybe it’s the point, but we’re still seeing the artifice of Alex, more than the person beneath.

Marlow moves in and out of their drag persona, bookending the show with a lipsynced introduction (to his own voice – a pleasingly meta device) first as Drag!Alex, then, peeling off the drag like a layer of armour, as IRL Alex – insofar as anyone (including Alex himself) knows who that might be. The movement and acting choices through these transitions are mature, humorous and well executed, evidence of a strong creative team. Elsewhere in the show though, there is an overreliance on stillness that undoes some of the tension and brings us out of the world of In The Beginning.

After telling us, in compellingly simple scenes, about a defiant, resilient grandmother, and detailing the erotic indifference of Rossendale fishermen, Alex ceremonially plasters themselves in clay, marking the move away from the Midlands into a new, ever-evolving queer identity. I felt my companion tense beside me. Is he really doing blackface right now? She whispered. The association coloured the rest of the performance for us, to make a brutally on the nose pun. Presumably inadvertent but pointing to a lack of diversity in the rehearsal room.

In The Beginning is clearly unfinished, Marlow has a good sense of how they want to tell the story, but not quite what it is they want to say. It’s rich with promise, but lacking the honesty of performance or profundity of self-reflection that will make this a standout piece of theatre. A line that did linger, long beyond the applause, was adult Alex’s response to family denial and homophobic playground taunts: I wanted them to be wrong. A sentiment so many of us are familiar with and the words of a creator who is in the process of proving themselves.

© Sophie London @solosays 2020

This production has now closed. Follow @AlexJMarlow on Twitter

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Review: Idol

by Jamal Gerald
The Yard, London until Feb 15th 2020

4*

Jamal Gerald is here to take up space. He is a Queer Black Man and makes sure we know it. All to the good. There is so much to love in Idol. The deep-rooted rituals and rites of a Caribbean household inform a tongue-in-cheek celebrity worship that makes as least as much sense as Black people praying to White Jesus. White supremacy breathes, it crawls, so if you don’t want it to follow you into the house make sure to come in anticlockwise.

The references to African diaspora experiences, to Caribbean culture, to being young and Black in Leeds or Black and Queer in the Tinder age, all of these are personal and specific, but there’s something in Idol for everyone. It felt accessible while still very much representing a certain way of being. Whether or not you recognise the Orisha altars around the performance space, or the Catholic style altar bearing likenesses of Prince, Beyoncé, Lil Kim et al, their purpose is clear and the effect is complete.

Two musicians sit upstage throughout, scoring movement or coming to the fore between spoken scenes and they are excellent. Having them play live elevates Idol, completes the sensory cocoon spun by the simple and satisfying lighting design, which evokes each mood without resorting to flashy theatrics, the scents of rosewater, incense and candlewax (reminiscent of church, of holy spaces) and the natural wood-and-earth environs of The Yard itself. Their style is contemporary and the music rich with tradition, the perfect accompaniment to Gerald’s script and performance. Not to mention the best maraca playing you’re ever likely to see on a London stage.

No exploration of colourism or colonialism will ever be complete, but the framing of idolatry -questioning who we uphold as holy and why- is a new perspective and so timely in our celebrity-obsessed age. As one of the original celebrities, Jesus has enjoyed enduring popularity, but has his persistent (and erroneous) depiction as a white man helped him maintain that status past his time?

Part autobiography and part rebuttal of colonial belief systems, Idol celebrates the new without disregarding or disrespecting the old ways and questions how we can honour our culture while finding our own way to take up space. Gerald gives a sensual and assured performance, despite a tendency to mumble. He is funny, smart and deeply likeable and isn’t afraid to leave some questions unanswered. The ceremony and celebration of Idol is a balm for the troubled soul of the Millennial diaspora.

© Sophie London 2020 @solosays

IDOL will be touring the UK until May, stopping off at Derby, Birmingham, Manchester, Sheffield, Cambridge, Brighton and Leeds. More info and links to booking here.

Idol, Jamal Gerald credit JMA Photography (5)

Image © JMA Photography

Review: No Sweat

Pleasance Theatre, London
Written and directed by Vicky Moran

No Sweat sets out to explore the ever-growing LGBTQ+ homelessness crisis by sharing real-life stories from a 24/7 male sauna. This 80-minute performance takes us into the intimate world of the sauna, the audience greeted with club stamps on their hand into a hazy shiny space with towels hung behind seats. It is this intimacy and closeness that writer and director Vicky Moran bases the performance.

Using interviews combined with the shifting set of transparent barriers from designer Alex Berry, the performance gives the audience an almost voyeuristic insight into this subculture of the gay world. This is soon embraced with intimacy and empathy as we delve into the characters lives and we see how the system around them led to them living in a spa. The direction always keeps you close to the characters and stripped back, whilst the movement focused transitions allow it to flow, and sometimes expand on the story.

The cast here do an amazing job of lifting the show, giving nuanced character driven performances that give that closeness the show demands giving the audience empathy, guilt and anger through the show. In our press night their professionalism was highlighted as three fire alarms went off and the auditorium was cleared once as a result. Every time the actors plowed on through the sirens until venue staff made an announcement, and after waiting out in a cold alley wearing only a towel they then resumed the show as if nothing ever happened. James Haymer gives us an engaging Alf who acts as a mentor and guide to the Spa, but also shows us how the years of this lifestyle has given him an unpleasant he tries to cover; Denholm Spurr delivers us a unsure boy trying to figure out his place in this new sub-culture whilst battling with his feelings towards his family. The stand-out performance is from Manish Gandhi who as spa worker, Charlie, starts off as an unassuming background character but thanks to the likeable and realistic performance soon has you rooting for him, especially after some of the most challenging and bleak scenes in the script.

I left the theatre with questions and feelings and spent the commute home engaged in conversations about how and why the situations we had just seen happens. No Sweat is definitely a conversation starter and opens a door into a world that is more common that most realise, told in a way that touches your heart. This is definitely a show to open eyes, I hope the right people go, and that we start to see more human work like this about the many other issues and groups within this culture that face equally tough and frustrating challenges every day.

© Dan Ramsden – 2020 – @DanielRamsdenFL

No Sweat runs at The Pleasance Theatre, London, until Feb 29th 2020
Book Now

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Image © Ali Wright