THE MP, Aunty Mandy And Me’s bittersweet tale of political campaigns, sexual consent and steam trains plays out at York Theatre Royal Studio on Saturday night.
Written and performed by Manchester-based Rob Ward, who brought Gypsy Queen’s unconventional love story between two fighters to the Studio in 2019, this 2022 Edinburgh Fringe show relates the story of young gay Dom, who craves being an #instagay #influencer.
The problem is, no-one likes his posts, he cannot find a bloke who shares his love of steam trains and he lives with his MDMA-popping, Simply Red-loving mum in the small, sleepy northern village, where he grew up, five miles from the nearest gay.
“He’d love a fabulous life with the A-Gays in a swanky city-centre apartment, but his crippling social anxiety prevents this from being a reality. It’s all a bit of an effort,” says Rob.
“Then, one day, a chance encounter with his local MP, Peter Edwards, leads to a job, turning everything upside down, but in pursuit of the life he thinks he wants, just how much does Dom have to give up?
The MP, Aunty Mandy & Me – the “Aunty Mandy” refers to Dom’s mum’s MDMA habit – explores consent, coercion and grooming within the gay male community through Ward’s combination of jagged humour and contemporary social commentary.
Rob’s play should have been touring in 2020, but the pandemic put paid to that after only two performances at Curve, Leicester. Yet the 2022 summer run in Edinburgh and autumn tour could not be better timed. “At one point this year, there were 56 MPs facing allegations of sexual misconduct, and when there are 650 MPs, that’s a high proportion,” says Rob.
“The play started as a reflection of personal experiences. I saw a play by a friend of mine, Tom Ratcliffe, called Velvet [about a young actor with a #metoo-style story to tell], and I had a conversation with him about how this behaviour [of coercion] can manifest itself, and I drew on that for my play.
“It’s that very careful planning, almost plotting, that takes place where the abuser gets you in a situation where you’re vulnerable or feel in need of them and then they move on.”
Rob’s research involved reading articles to learn of people’s experiences and having conversations with Duncan Craig OBE, the chief executive officer of Survivors, a Manchester charity for male survivors of sexual abuse.
“The roots of the play probably go back to the #metoo movement in 2017, listening to those stories, thinking about those power dynamics, and then realising that there probably wasn’t a male gay voice being heard in that movement, though of course it was quite right that the focus was on women with #metoo.
“But then you start hearing about theatre and film directors exploiting gay men, and I started talking with other gay men about how this happens within their community.”
Rob felt driven to highlight how such coercive abuse can prevail. “It’s an issue in society, where we’re coming to terms with it, but there are many more conversations to be had. I thought, ‘let’s open it out beyond the world of theatre’, and as I’m interested in politics, I decided I’d look at gay grooming in that world.
“Frequently, the power imbalance is a key part of it; what you face when you first step on to the gay scene, who you meet.”
Rob does not write with a didactic or polemical tone. “I try to avoid that,” he says. “I’m much more keen on asking questions and seeing what answers the audiences come up with. I prefer to steer clear of polemic. Instead, I like people to say, ‘oh, I hadn’t thought about that before’.
“It’s essentially an exploration of ideas, rather than coming down on one side or the other, and hopefully people will then want to reflect on it and look into it further.”
Rob writes of the social-media world of the #instagay #influencer in his play. “I’m not a social influencer on Instagram, but it’s important that theatre addresses these issues and keeps our voices being heard in the wider community. As increasingly right-wing governments start to form, you have to be wary that liberties that have been fought for, for so long, can be taken away very quickly.”
After 17 Pleasance Dome performances at the Edinburgh Fringe,” trying it out, seeing what works, what needs working on, like a comedian testing gags, or being in a laboratory”, Rob is on tour, taking in both York and Harrogate in October.
“It’s been going down really well,” he says of an 80-minute eye-opener quickly becoming known as “the play about a Labour MP with a fetish”.
Emmerson & Ward Productions and Curve, Leicester present Rob Ward in The MP, Auntie Mandy And Me, York Theatre Royal Studio, Saturday (October 1), 7.45pm; Harrogate Theatre Studio, October 20, 8pm. Box office: York, 01904 623568 or yorktheatreroyal.co.uk; Harrogate, 01423 502116 or harrogatetheatre.co.uk