Between Martha, Biting the Fruit and Cottage, Ben Willows’ name has become innately tied to the student-written queer theatre of Durham. His plays often explore the lesser-discussed corners of the queer experience throughout recent history, with phenomena such as Clause 28 and the act of anonymous, public gay sex among his chosen topics. Sightline Productions’ Bi Panic is no exception; a one-man show told by and focused on Bobby: a bisexual man, struggling with his identity as a queer man and the trials, doubts and prejudices that come with it, as he turns 25 in the wake of the pandemic. However, is Bi Panic simply another queer Ben Willows play? In a word? No. In more words? Bi Panic separates itself from Willows’ other plays by showcasing not only Willows’ voice, but Bobby’s. Told by Bobby from his perspective, the voice of Bi Panic feels distinctly unique to Willows’ other plays and this is no better exemplified than the way in which the play often breaks moments of heightened tension with comedic asides, mirroring Bobby’s own discomfort with seriousness and confrontation. This not only had the whole audience laughing — owing in no small part to Willows’ comedic timing and charisma in the role — but also established a status quo of nonsustained moments of seriousness which, once broken by prolonged emotional moments later in the play, let the audience know, “Strap in folks, this is gonna hurt.”
The play tastefully covers many factors of the collective experience of bisexual men: from bi-erasure to the emasculation of queer men, the heterosexualisation of bisexual men in heterosexual relationships, the struggle to be taken seriously when coming out and how much better David Bowie was doing at their age. Some of these themes have a tendency to feel somewhat glanced over, but the textual relevance of the more explored themes justifies their prevalence over others. Moreover, these themes share a plot with a devastating narrative surrounding Bobby’s grandma’s Alzheimer’s, a plot point that some audience members considered out of place. However, I felt that its presence in the otherwise heavily sexuality-focussed story only serves to strengthen Bobby’s message that he is more than the way in which the world tries to define him by his sexuality, and thus he has other facets to his life.
This story is told expertly through the collaboration between director Jennifer Lafferty, assistant directors George Thomas and Samantha Wong, and Willows. One would surely be intimidated by the prospect of directing an actor in a play they wrote themselves, but Lafferty rises to the challenge and succeeds in bringing Bobby to life. Lafferty’s direction of Willows’ expert acting skills portrays Bobby as an extroverted if under-socialised man, struggling with himself as he fights with his own emotional barriers to look inside himself and decide how he defines himself. Willows’ charismatic performance, coupled with furtive, erratic movements of his face and body paints a picture of Bobby as a born performer, slightly rusty following two years inside and bursting with unfulfilled potential. Lafferty paces the story excellently, allowing Willows’ emotional performance to fluctuate with the tone of the script, resulting in Bobby holding the audience in the palm of his hand for the whole play: making them laugh and cry as he sees fit. Bowie is used throughout, punctuating the play’s beats with emotionally appropriate music and being used as musical interludes between settings – making it clear that the scene has changed while keeping the audience comfortably seated within the narrative.
This is backed up by the lighting of the piece. Designed by Wong, the lighting remains mainly consistent but uses a subtle spotlight for more intimate moments and flashing coloured lights to simulate club settings and scenes of heightened action. In the smaller venue of the Palace Green music deptartment, this lighting design uses the more limited tech available to perfectly complement the action on stage and enrich the intimate vibe of the play’s confessional style.
I have been reliably informed that producer Ellen Olley is to thank for finding the venue and she is to be commended for finding the perfect venue for the piece. Moreover, Olley and stage manager Daisy Robinson are to be commended for the excellent set design of the piece. The set’s bare bones of a sofa and desk are generic enough to allow them to transition from Bobby’s flat to a table in a pub and Bobby’s parent’s house. However, the rich decoration of the set as Bobby’s flat allows the audience to get to know Bobby as a person before he even takes the stage. Decorations such as a half-solved Rubik’s cube and a sock propping up his wobbly desk establish Bobby as a serial underachiever who has trouble finding permanent solutions to his problems before the play even begins. Furthermore, Olley is also to be congratulated for the procurement of a scarily big spoiler.
In summary, Bi Panic is an incredibly well-written play, brought to life expertly by the harmony in which Lafferty and her prod team worked with Willows. Only let down infrequently by some slightly on-the-nose foreshadowing and dialogue between Willows and unseen parties that felt a touch stilted. Beyond this, Bi Panic is a must-see for any theatre fans in Durham, but especially those interested in emotionally astute and well-informed queer theatre.
Image credit: Sightline Theatre Company