Review: Masquerade / Epstein Theatre

Hurrying down the street in the freezing cold on my way to the Epstein Theatre, I was confused to see an ’80s gay bar stood in its place.

Upon entering, the atmosphere could not have been further from the bitter, dark streets of Liverpool.

Warmth radiated from the theatre, which had been transformed into “The Masquerade”. Smiling drag queens offered free shots upon entry and ’80s tunes were pumping through the speakers from the DJ in the foyer.

“Masquerade” tells the story of Mike, resident DJ at The Masquerade or “The Mazzie” as it is commonly referred to, a popular gay bar which has since been demolished. It closely follows his relationships and experiences in the ostracised gay communities of 1980s Liverpool.

Michael Bailey performing as drag queen Judy © Anthony Robling

From a welcome which promised a joyous performance, I was struck by the macabre opening set which reeked of bleak austerity and mortality.

The stage felt full to the brim at every moment

I began to worry I was in for three hours of death and despair … but that thought quickly left my mind as soon as the actors stepped on stage.

I was hit with boundless energy from the entire cast as soon as each actor made their entrance. It may have been a cast of eight, but the stage felt full to the brim at every moment.

The first act was a celebration of queerness which had the entire audience clapping and smiling throughout. Jokes and witty repartee flew across the stage with sharp and dynamic dialogue which coaxed laugh after laugh out of those watching.

The rather sparse and unassuming set – painted grey and off-white – was brought to life when multi-coloured spotlights bounced off the props and haze with bright LEDs framing the stage. This party-lighting was effectively used to transport the audience into the inside of the Masquerade bar.

It is hard to find a stand-out character of the evening

James Baker’s directing was flawless with an incredible ability to seamlessly intertwine acting with dance and song. Powerful use of physical theatre was used throughout the blocking, which was incredibly effective and often underscored with classic ’80s pop music.

These moments of mimed movement were some of my favourites in the performance. Often used to address the more intimate or chaotic elements of the play, they gripped the audience and showcased the incredible intensity of the actors’ abilities.

It is hard to find a stand-out character of the evening with every actor giving such gutsy and polished performances. However, Joe Owen, as Mike’s best friend Tony, managed to stand out amidst the ludicrously talented cast.

Tony’s repeated farewell line: “Places to see and faces to sit on” gives an insight into his tongue-and-cheek persona.

This man is as talented a dancer as he is an actor with incredible energy being thrown into all aspects of his performance. Alongside this vivacity, however, was a heart-felt and grounded believability which made his character exceptionally likeable and absolutely hilarious.

After unnerving foreshadowing at the end of the first act, the second promised to be a

Neil MacDonald as Frank © Anthony Robling

more serious affair. The AID’s pandemic was a large element with focus being drawn to the political and societal stresses this placed on the LGBTQ+ community.

Gay-bashing, positive tests and media scare tactics, were all key themes in the second half. However, the subtlety of this focus meant there was still plenty of humour, with only a few lines managing to be delivered before another joke was thrown into the mix.

Even when things seemed bleak, this play chose to focus on hope, family and support in dark times. This sense of community was evident throughout the entire production but emphasized as times got tougher for the characters.

“But this is home, I only opened this place so people like you could have your freedom”: Frank the Fabulous, owner of The Masquerade

Family, chosen or not, was the main message upon which this play was anchored. Neil MacDonald and Catherine Rice multi-roled all the key mother and father figures in the production with perfect levels of sensitivity, affection and tough love.

Frank the Fabulous stressed that his bar was a safe space for the LGBTQ+ community saying: “But this is home, I only opened this place so people like you could have your freedom.”

The wholesome relationships created by these actors onstage were true testaments to their remarkable talent and the skilful writing of this script by Laura Lees.

I implore anyone free this week to book a ticket and head on down to Liverpool’s number one gay bar “Masquerade” and enjoy an evening of spectacular, heart-felt and hilarious entertainment.

Star rating: 5 out of 5 

  • Masquerade runs from November 22 to November 26 at the Epstein Theatre, Hanover Street

Tickets are available here.

Featured Image © Anthony Robling





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