Company name: Hormone Imbalance
Founders: Melissa Murray, Siobhan Lennon, Sandy Lester, Stephanie Pugsley and Sara Hardy. (Jill Posener was involved in the initial set up of the group but didn’t remain, Madeleine McNamara was invited to take her place.)
Established: January 1979
Reason: A desire to create a style of lesbian theatre that was more edgy and provocative than the predominantly earnest ‘come out’ style of lesbian feminist theatre that was – of necessity – being created in the mid 1970s. It was, in effect, an alternative to the alternative.
Current status: Disbanded
Area of Work: Lesbian feminist with a twist.
Policy: We didn’t formalise a policy but the following (unedited) quote from our blurb gives the general idea: ‘Hormone Imbalance is not another chapter from the Kinsey Report, a Freudian description of the ‘female complaint’ nor … the definitive guide on lesbian erotica. What we are is an exciting theatrical venture within a surrealist form designed to make visible our invisibility, turn water into wine, make whole the sick and bring the dead to life, or words to that effect.’
Structure: The core group was six lesbians, who came together to create a revue-style performance called Hormone Imbalance. Melissa Murray was the creator/writer/director, and Siobhan Lennon, Sandy Lester, Stephanie Pugsley, Sara Hardy and Madeleine McNamara were creator/performers. We worked as a collective and shared all tasks, from creation to administration. Other individuals assisted the group at various times – with music, set design, poster design etc.
Funding: Applications were made but not granted.
Venues: The company had no home. We performed at Oval House; Action Space Drill Hall; King’s Head; the Head, Putney; Croydon Warehouse; Phoenix Theatre, Leicester; Melkweg, Amsterdam, amongst other.
Audiences: Lesbian initially and mainly but also mixed – from the supportive to the salaciously curious.
Company work and process and Personal appraisals and thoughts
Brought together by Sara Hardy:
‘The idea for Hormone Imbalance came out of a drunken conversation between friends who were lamenting the lack of theatrical wit and audacity in lesbian and feminist theatre. Some of these women worked with Gay Sweatshop and some with Pirate Jenny. The fantasy was that we’d create a lesbian punk band and compose a song called ‘Revolting’ – the name of the band would be Hormone Imbalance. This was around Christmas 1978. The essence of this idea took hold when we decided to create a lesbian revue for the Gay Times Festival at Oval House, held 19 February–11 March 1979. We rehearsed at Oval House and created the work through improvisation of ideas fed in by all of us but mainly Melissa Murray. In the very earliest days of rehearsal the group comprised Melissa Murray, Siobhan Lennon, Sandy Lester, Stephanie Pugsley, Sara Hardy, and Jill Posener. Melissa and Jill were writers rather than actors, although at that early stage the intention may have been that they also performed in the piece – the earliest publicity shot shows these six women as ‘Hormone Imbalance’.
There was a clash of personalities and creative views and one afternoon it seemed clear that something had to give. I distinctly remember saying to Jill (who was a close friend) that she should leave the rehearsal room – and leave the group. I think I shocked the whole team, including myself, because I was invariably the ‘quiet one’. Jill did leave, painful though that was for all of us, and Madeleine McNamara was asked to join us in due course. We all contributed but Melissa Murray was the creative force behind the structure of the revue. She was the one who wrote the script and directed.
I think the group dynamic worked because we each had a quirky sense of humour, and were sufficiently different from each other in personality and skills – an aspect that fed into the creative process. These positives could also become negatives at times, if stress levels were high.
We came from a mixed theatrical experience – and there were also some ‘interesting’ emotional dynamics given that Melissa Murray and Siobhan Lennon were partners at the time, as were Sandy Lester and Stephanie Pugsley. I think I was the only one who’d had formal theatre training (Dartington College of Arts), and I’d been in several Gay Sweatshop productions, including the original ‘women’s company’ Gay Sweatshop production of Jill Posener’s play Any Woman Can. Melissa Murray had written for and sometimes performed with Pirate Jenny (and perhaps Women’s Theatre Group); Madeleine McNamara had worked with feminist theatre groups in New Zealand and continued to work with fellow New Zealanders in London around this time; Siobhan Lennon may have worked with Pirate Jenny and/or similar women’s groups in London and Ireland; Sandy Lester had at least some community theatre experience, as did Stephanie (or ‘Steff’) Pugsley, who also played guitar and composed and sang songs.
The designer for the revue was another New Zealander, Kate Jason-Smith (who’d worked as a performer with Gay Sweatshop). Lyrics and/or music for songs were contributed by Dinah Steiner, Shona McDonald, Stephanie Pugsley and Melissa Murray. Poster and photographs by Cass Breen. The extremely brief programme for the revue states ‘special thanks to Sue Dunderdale, Stacey Charlesworth, Jean Hart, Dinah Steiner, & Action Space’.
The Hormone Imbalance revue premiered in the downstairs studio at Oval House on Friday 2nd February 1979 in week two of the Gay Times Festival. It was a phenomenal success. Reviews were enthusiastic.
We applied for an Arts Council of Great Britain grant on the strength of this success (Julie Parker assisted with the filling in of the forms) but our application was declined. This was a great disappointment, but we continued in spite of it. We ploughed any income from performances back into the company and ‘managed’ as best we could. I ‘signed on’ for unemployment benefits during much of this era, as did most of my colleagues – it was the arts funding you got when you weren’t getting any arts funding!’
Ophelia by Melissa Murray
‘One of the sketches in the revue was a spoof on Hamlet – Ophelia did not drown, she ran off with her female lover – all written in luscious Shakespearian style. This scene was the inspiration for Melissa Murray’s next play: Ophelia. This new play, to quote our blurb, was ‘a completely new interpretation of Hamlet that retains some of the old characters but almost nothing of the plot…There are elements of modern day political power struggles mixed with shades of the original Elizabethan style and projections into the future.’
Ophelia was directed by Sue Dunderdale. For more on Ophelia click here.
The end result was that we had two very good productions to offer and we proceeded to send our publicity out to potential venues: ‘all fees negotiable’.
But our superbly written funding application was not successful – which was extremely disappointing. By the end of 1979, we couldn’t hold the group together any longer.’
Going our own ways
Melissa Murray went on to write plays for companies such as Almost Free, Monstrous Regiment and Avon Touring. I’m not sure what other members of the company did, although I know that Sandy Lester (who sadly died in the 1990s) went on to work with Hard Corps. Exhausted and disillusioned, I gave up lesbian theatre (for the moment) and secured a job with Half Moon Young People’s Theatre.
Interestingly, half the group went on to make a fresh start far away from London. Jill Posener went to the USA and devoted her talents to photography; Melissa Murray and (I think) Siobhan Lennon moved to Ireland; Madeleine McNamara returned to New Zealand; and I have been living in Australia since January 1981. I continued to create lesbian/feminist/alternative theatre in Sydney, Adelaide and then in Melbourne where I was a founding member of Radclyffe Theatre Productions (1985-2000), and have worked as an actor, playwright and latterly biographer.’ (see below)
‘The Festival was a heady, almost family, affair. The opening night of Hormone Imbalance’s revue saw many women, mostly gay, and some men squeezed together on narrow benches to roar their appreciation at a show that consisted of parodies of Shakespeare, Tennessee Williams, gay theatre, lesbian mores and Hormone Imbalance themselves. Despite some over-writing, the show was funny, ironic and imagistic. Hormone Imbalance had managed to shoo lesbian theatre out of the closet of cosy naturalism and smug agit-prop where gays are heroines and hets are beasts. …The enthusiastic reaction to the revue stimulated invitations from theatres like the Head in Putney and the King’s Head in Islington, and the warm response from these more heterosexual audiences gave Hormone Imbalance a clear indication that the show was working.’ (Anne McFerran, Time Out article 5-11 October 1979, p20)
‘Angry, anarchic and haunting. Hormone Imbalance could push British feminist theatre into realms of unexplored theatrical wealth.’ (Time Out)
‘Hilarious Revue, good, funny, perceptive and moving. Skilled lesbian theatricals presented with great care and commitment. A brilliant reflection.’ (Spare Rib)
‘Good material, strong visual images and provocative fun.’ (Gay News)
‘The play, which Melissa Murray says is about ‘class and power struggles’, is terse yet lavishly theatrical – a stylish piece without a single ‘Actually Mother, I’m a dyke’ speech. And that, when you consider that lesbian theatre has remained stuck around the kitchen sink for the last six years, is no mean achievement.’ (Anne McFerran, Time Out article 5-11 October 1979, p20)
Production name Venues Dates
Devised by the cast
Written and directed by Melissa Murray
Cast: Siobhan Lennon, Sara Hardy, Sandy Lester, Madeleine McNamara, Stephanie Pugsley
A witty, provocative lesbian revue.
London Venues: Oval House, King’s Head, the Head, Putney, Croydon Warehouse.
Also Phoenix Theatre, Leicester; Melkweg, Amsterdam; and ‘other’
Writer: Melissa Murray Director: Sue Dunderdale
Ophelia: Stephanie Pugsley
Gertrude: Siobhan Lennon
Hamlet: Sara Hardy
Polonius/Berald: Madeleine McNamara
Laertes/Olaf: Sandy Lester
Branwen/Harald: ? ?
A rewriting of Hamlet with a social, political, feminist, lesbian twist.
Action Space Drill Hall Early 1979
Existing archive material: Sara Hardy
Acknowledgements: We are extremely grateful to Sara Hardy, founding member, and creator/actor, for writing and providing all the material for this page. She says: ‘My apologies for all those names left out. Please contact Unfinished Histories if you can fill in some gaps.’ The page was constructed by Jessica Higgs. November 2013
This page has been created with the support of the National Lottery through the Heritage Lottery Fund.