Company: Gay Sweatshop Theatre Company
Writer: Noel Greig
Director: Noel Greig
Designer: Kate Owen
Cast 1983: Robin Samson, Philip Timmins, Philip Osment, Ralph Smith, Simon Deacon, Robert Hale, Dave Tomalin
Stage Manager: Pete Charles
Set construction: Dave White
Poster design, company photographs: Pete Freer
Hairstyles: Jo Moise
Administration: Martin Humphrey
Year: 1983 and again in 1985
Cast 1985: David Newlyn, Gordon MacDonald, Peter Shorey, Stephen Ley, David Benedict, John Wilson, Richard Sandells

In 1983 the company was revived to produce Noel Grieg’s Poppies – the first Gay Sweatshop production since 1980. Thanks in part to Barry Jackson, a long time supporter of the company now working at the Arts Council, Poppies was written with government funding.

Poppies was inspired by the Peace Movement of the early 1980s, CND and the women on Greenham Common. The first public reading of the play was at a Gay CND weekend conference in London. The conference considered ways in which a discussion around the nature of masculinity could bring a new dimension to the Peace Movement. Set against the threat of nuclear war, Poppies is acknowledged as being one of the best plays to come out of the nuclear debate. The central theme is that, ‘Men kill each other because they do not know how to love each other’ (Noel Greig). Themes of the play included romance and death, possessiveness and jealousy. How the lost love stops the character from appreciating his lover in the present. Two of the characters described as ‘Mouldy Heads’ are actually dead and they quarrel and comment on the action throughout.

From the Poppies programme, 1983: It recognised, ‘…that unless men begin to relate to each other in new ways, denying the violence of the power we have been offered all out lives, we have nothing to do with peace or with new forms of social organisation. Since the conference Gay CND has become active at public events and demonstrations. The context of Poppies is this new initiative springing from the Gay movement.’

The show proved so popular a second tour with new actors took play in 1985. It also gained notoriety when the leader of a Tory group in Bristol, denounced the play as ‘sinister and subversive’. Noels responded, ‘If she does not favour such things, might I suggest that she go and live in Russia.’

‘…then I wrote a play off my own bat that was a response to the Cold War and militarism. I decided that I wanted to put it on, and I’ll do it under Gay Sweatshop. So after about a year and a half’s time after the company being in abeyance I raised some project funding for it and restarted Gay Sweatshop with Poppies. That was sort of a new span of life for Sweatshop and that was 1983. We toured the country with it, in that context [women and the Peace Movement]. And we did a number of benefits to raise money for Greenham, so it was in the context of what was going on with the Cold War at the time. It was a play that I’d written, that I hadn’t written thinking it would be for Gay Sweatshop although as with the Gay Sweatshop plays, gay characters were at the heart of it, and it felt appropriate that it should be a Gay Sweatshop production. It took place on Parliament Hill over looking London, and it was an all male cast. It looked back to 1939 and the present day so you saw characters as their younger selves and their contemporary manifestations. It was about attitudes towards war and militarism, and the lives of people, gay men involved in those debates. Such a long while ago, it’s difficult remembering. Robin Archer directed it in Australia and we changed it to On Parliament Hill because there were a lot of other plays that were on in Australia with the word poppy in [it], so Robin said can we change the title and actually I quite liked that title: On Parliament Hill, I think it’s even better than Poppies. So it was done round the world actually, quite a lot. Not any longer, but it had a good life. Again it was part of that aspect of Gay Sweatshop that I was particularly interested in which was creating stories that placed gay people at the heart of the narrative, that dealt with subject matters that had a general interest. I directed the first production and then we had a separate production that Philip Osment directed that had a different cast in ’85.’ Noel Greig 2008

‘Gay Sweatshop philosophy that it’s part of a bigger political picture being gay. I think there’s been a real move away from that. Particularly Noel’s work, he would always try and place the gay content in a historical context. Whether it was Edward Carpenter and the beginning of the independent Labour Party or As Time Goes By, that looked at three gay men at three particular points in history, and was about making links to what else is going on in the world and I’m not sure that the work that is happening now does that. I think generally, the question about theatre is are there still big plays and are there still plays that are looking at the state of the nation? I feel that Noel was trying to write state of the nation plays even though they were for Gay Sweatshop, about Gay people, so Poppies was a state of the nation play.’ Phillip Osment, 2013

Video clip from Poppies 1983:

Video Transcript

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