What was the “Lavender Menace”? The term was first coined in 1969 by The Feminine Mystique author Betty Friedan, who originally feared that out lesbians were a “threat” to the nascent women’s liberation movement. Soon afterward, the term was reclaimed in a more empowering light by author/activist Rita Mae Brown, who wrote the classic lesbian novel Rubyfruit Jungle. Taking its name in the spirit of Ms. Brown’s renegade perspective, Lavender Menace was an LGBTQ bookstore in 1980’s Edinburgh, Scotland. Destined to make its mark in queer cultural history, the store actually had its origins as a cloakroom at Fire Island, a legendary Edinburgh gay dance club. James Ley’s lively, delightful comedy-drama Love Song to Lavender Menace takes place on an emotional night at that famous bookstore in 1987: specifically, the last night of the store’s existence. We meet the play’s two magnetic characters, book lover Lewis (Pierce Reid) and party boy Glen (Matthew McVarish). The young men are friends and volunteers at Lavender Menace, and they have until dawn to pack up every single book. While they pack, they are also preparing a tribute to their beloved bookshop as well as to the store’s founders, Bob Orr and Sigrid Nielsen. In between boxing books and rehearsing their “love song” of the play’s title, the two reminisce, talk about their fears (the AIDS epidemic, the impending Section 28, the conservative agenda of Margaret Thatcher…), analyze such LGBTQ classics as James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, channel some colorful characters from their subculture, and occasionally break out into dance to The Weather Girls’ It’s Raining Men. Although they are surrounded by a plethora of books ranging from The Lost Language of Cranes to Anal Pleasure and Health, it turns out that the real-life backstory behind Lavender Menace, combined with playwright’s earnest exploration of the unique friendship between Lewis and Glen, is the most fascinating story of all.
After a sell-out run at the Royal Lyceum Theatre Edinburgh and many glowing reviews, Love Song to Lavender Menace is now making its debut at New York City’s SoHo Playhouse— complete with Scottish accents, distinctly delicious British lexicon (“Does my bum look magnificent in these?”, asks Glen.), and patently 80’s-style set pieces. (When was the last time you saw… a cassette tape?!) The play offers a poignant yet often hilariously funny look at the atmosphere of gay male life in an pre-Internet era when our “mix tapes” would have included New Order, the Eurythmics, Whitney Houston, and Erasure. As we learn in Ley’s play, however, It wasn’t always a gay old time for Scottish LGBTQ’s. Even though Scotland has become widely regarded as one of the most queer- friendly countries in the world in recent times, Edinburgh in the 1980’s was not like New York City or San Francisco: As one character accurately declares, “Scotland in 1981 was no homosexual paradise.” For some historical perspective, take note that male same-sex relationships were not even officially legalized in the country until 1980, in contrast to 1967 for England and Wales. Several times throughout the play, one of the characters describes the entire “ritual” that gay men had to undertake just to find other each other at a time when it wasn’t always acceptable or even safe to do so. There was the fear of being “outed”, harassed, getting branded with a criminal record, or worse. Lavender Menace, “the little bookstore that could”, proved to be a safe haven for gays, lesbians, feminists, and other so-called “radicals” to expand their minds and spirits.
Pierce Reid as Lewis and Matthew McVarish as Glen are perfectly cast, and the pair have excellent chemistry together– especially when engaging in their witty analyses of classic gay literature or bickering with each other in the way good friends do. Tall and limber, Reid is wonderful as the emotionally restless, passionate, and proudly flamboyant Lewis, who can rarely make a statement without adding some dramatic adornment. (He tells Glen, “I’m not crazy. I’m queerly lucid!”) As Glen, McVarish is equally magnetic to watch as the hirsute, rugby-bodied bon vivant who proves to be the more pragmatic and adaptable of the pair. Glen may even be willing to trade his hot pants for a very well-fitted suit… but, as we learn, just don’t ever call him “conservative”!
Funny, high-spirited, moving, and historically important, Love Song to Lavender Menace is a story that needs to be told. The play’s theme of change– both personally and culturally– is a timeless one. As the story progresses, the sweet memories of Fire Island the dance club and Lavender Menace the bookstore partially shift into a looming fear: a more subtle but also more far-reaching threat than the lack of acceptance of gays by society. When Lewis and Glen learn that the club and the store will be taken over by Waterstones, a British bookstore retail chain, the friends worry about gay life blending into the mainstream and losing its identity. With LGBTQ bookstores (and bookstores in general) and other queer-identified businesses increasingly closing their doors in the big cities worldwide, the message of Love Song to Lavender Menace becomes all the more potent as we enter 2019.
James Ley’s Love Song to Lavender Menace, directed by Ros Philips, continues at The Soho Playhouse as part of the Fringe Encore Series 2018 at 15 Vandam St, New York City. Visit for tickets and more information, visit here.