Review: A Haunted Existence at Battersea Arts Centre

It doesn’t take long to understand that for writer and performer Tom Marshman, the events that inspired A Haunted Existence are far more than just a story. This is clear in the format of the show, which is part presentation, part performance, part seance – but also in the obvious affection and respect with which he speaks of the men involved in the shocking case he describes.

Photo credit: Paul Samuel White

It all began with seventeen-year-old Geoffrey Patrick Williamson, who was arrested on a train in 1953 for making “improper advances” to a man who turned out to be a plain clothes Railway Officer. When questioned, the teenager named several other men he had been involved with sexually, adding “You may find these things morally wrong. I do not.” This, along with the names of the men he identified – many of whom were subsequently imprisoned – becomes a common refrain throughout the hour-long show, as we’re taken on a journey through music, projection and movement back to a time when being gay was not just a criminal offence, but was “treated” in the most horrific and dehumanising ways.

The title of the show is taken from a speech by Lord Owen, in which he referred to the lives of necessarily closeted gay men as “a haunted existence”. It could just as easily, however, refer to Tom Marshman himself, who clearly identifies with these men and sets out to bring them to life on stage to hear their stories and honour the sacrifices they made.

This he does not only with immense care, but also with great artistry and attention to detail. As a performer, he’s instantly personable, self-deprecating and funny, taking historical facts and presenting them in an engaging and varied format that easily holds our attention. His movements are graceful and precise, creating sequences that are hauntingly beautiful to watch, particularly set as they are to music that’s been carefully selected to evoke a specific moment or individual.

Photo credit: Matt Glover

The details we learn about what happened to gay men only a few decades ago – imprisonment, social rejection, brutal aversion therapies, suicide – are deeply shocking and difficult to hear. Nevertheless, the show does end on a note of optimism, sharing some of the happier endings enjoyed by a few of the men involved in the scandal. Marshman’s obvious joy at the discovery that Geoffrey Williamson ultimately found happiness is infectious, and more than a little emotional for an audience by now fully invested in the outcome of his story.

A Haunted Existence is far from your typical night at the theatre, and is in a lot of ways quite a difficult show to put into words. It does, however, tell an important and powerful story and is rich in both atmosphere and emotion. Perhaps most importantly, it’s clearly a labour of love for Tom Marshman, and this alone makes it well worth a visit.

A Haunted Existence continues on tour – visit for dates and venues.

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