TOPSIE REDFERN’S CRYSTAL BALLS heads to London theatres
When the histories of your communities are missing from the history books, how do you keep those memories alive? And how do the weight of those memories affect who we are today?
As a queer kid growing up in the North of England in the 80s, Nathan actually did have a crystal ball in his attic, and he did stare into it a lot. Before he had learned enough about the world to allow him to embark on a journey of queer self-acceptance, Nathan didn’t have a clue in hell what to do with his gift of shininess. Because where he was from, being shiny could get you into trouble. And so Nathan would hide in the attic, drape himself in the old stage costumes of his mother, and those of his fortune-teller great-grandmother, and stare into that crystal ball –wondering why he was so different and what would become of his life. It didn’t take a prophet to guess that Nathan would grow up to be a drag queen: Miss Topsie Redfern. Topsie is a regular and popular fixture in some of the UK’s most celebrated cabaret venues, with regular international appearances. She is also a popular host of Drag Queen Storytime Sessions, reading to families and young people in schools and libraries throughout the UK.
Years later, as a young actor, making his West End debut as Mary Sunshine in Chicago, Nathan’s mother gave him a first night gift: the crystal ball he had been obsessed with as a kid. In his dressing room, he started to research its owner; his great-grandmother Winifred Kiely, born in 1905 to a respectable middle-class family in Bristol. Rejected by her parents after falling pregnant aged 14 to an Irish traveller more than double her age, she was forced to start her life afresh. She birthed 11 living children in a caravan 8ft wide and 12ft long, while working the fairs as the hugely renowned Madame Olga. In the 1930s and 40s, Olga regularly told the fortunes of Alan Turing, Lady Astor and members of the War Cabinet. And in the year that Turing, – marginalised and vilified for his homosexuality in his lifetime – is set to appear on the £50 note, this connection through the ages becomes especially poignant.
Crystal Balls is the story of Nathan’s discovery of his Irish Traveller heritage, through the lens of the memories of his Great Grandmother’s extraordinary life. It uses the traditions of Irish storytelling and drag cabaret to explore the story of Winifred Kiely, and how this story intersects with the hidden histories of marginalised communities in their written and the unwritten forms: exploring the codes of silenced peoples (predominantly queer history and Traveller history) – and how those codes, from dress codes like hanky codes and garlanding, to linguistic ones like Shelta and Polari, create safety – but also build barriers.
Nathan’s work over the past few years with Drag Queen Storytime – dragqueenstorytime.com – has centred around breaking down barriers and misconceptions around feminine queer men, but this has faced several backlashes, some of them involving violent threats. Part of the creative team’s drive for making this show comes from exploring how we can take pride in the parts of ourselves – and our cultural histories – that previous generations would have hidden, and to become role models, especially to young people, safely and proudly.
ONDON DATES: Above the Stag (Vauxhall) on the 30th May // and Two Brewers (Clapham) on 28th-30th July LONDON