When Rob Madge heard their show was being transferred to the West End, they thought the news was a prank.
"It had always been something that me and my team would joke about. 'Oh, when you're on the West End, baby, we'll have a lovely time!'" laughs Madge, the 26-year-old non-binary performer and creator of the hit one-person-play My Son's a Queer (But What Can You Do?).
Madge has been acting almost their whole life, and as a 12-year-old, created and starred in their own 'Disney parade'. They had a whole script and scenes ready to go, but their parents (who they "hired" as directors/stage managers/camerapeople) couldn't keep up to speed with Rob's vision. Chaos ensued.
It's this childhood video, alongside others, that form the foundations of My Son's a Queer — a stage sensation that's effortlessly hopped from small London theatre, to Edinburgh Fringe, to rave-reviewed West End hit, showing to 400 people nightly. It has been "a funny old journey," Madge smiles.
"I've done it to reclaim my trauma"
"I did so many shows as a kid in my living room, but the one I always think of is how badly wrong that parade was, because I was devastated," says Madge.
During the ill-fated production, Rob's dad struggles to operate Ariel's bubble machine and Mickey's parade float (a suitcase), while their mum misses the cue to call Mary Poppins downstairs, and mistakes Aladdin for Ursula. "I was meant to be two more characters, but the costume went awry," harrumphs a downtrodden young Madge at the end of the tape.
Madge — a notable social media star — started posting their old video clips during the pandemic, and simultaneously began writing a script, deciding it was time they revisited this watershed chapter in their life.
"I've done it to reclaim my trauma," laughs Madge, going on: "I'm so thankful to those people that watch those videos back in lockdown because, without them, I don't think people would have had faith that there was an audience for it.
"With them behind me, I could sort of make a case for why it should be a show in town."
"My first inspiration was needing to make people laugh... then spark a conversation after it"
The result is a hilarious, yet tender, coming-of-age story — filled with music, confetti, costume and wig changes — that's explores the genesis of Madge's love for theatre, and their journey to queer and non-binary expression.
Regardless of identity, it's all highly relatable — so many of us were documented in home videos as kids, and I'd warrant quite a few of us were "different" in school, too.
Familial love flows freely through My Son's A Queer; Rob's long-suffering dad get them a Beasts costume instead of the Belle one they wanted; later their Grandma knits them a yellow dress. There are rip-roaringly funny moments; Rob realised they were queer when they developed a childhood crush on the Pied Piper — and this is revealed during a gushing romantic musical number.
Other times, the theatre falls quiet with contemplation. Rob's school report cards said their theatrical personality "won't help him make friends." In school, Rob kept themselves very much to themselves, and was even discouraged from using their imagination. Rob should participate in sports instead, said the school.
"My first inspiration was needing to make people laugh, and now it's leading to make people laugh and then spark a conversation after it," says Madge.
"LGBTQ lives aren't just tragic, dramatic and full of debate"
The size of the theatre may have ballooned, but Madge tells me they never wanted "to go too big for the show" since it's set in an intimate living room: "I really rely on connecting with audience members because, without them, I ain't got nothing to play with. They've become my co-stars.
"At the Ambassador's Theatre, we're very lucky. I really feel like the audience is with me and in the room. Anywhere else would be too vast, and I would be speaking into a chasm."
With show like Bootycandy, Everybody's Talking About Jamie and The View Upstairs taking not just London — but the world — by storm, is queer theatre enjoying a long-awaited moment in the mainstream spotlight?
Madge is cautious about this, telling me they've noticed a 'slight rumbling' of more queer work, and hope that more of these stories will be told "not as a novelty joke, but as another valid story and as important as any other long-running plays or musicals on the West End."
Yet Madge feels there aren't enough joyful queer stories on stage, TV, or film: "Queer people are often the villain in what is otherwise a very stable society, which is just not the case at all.
"I think now is a crucial time to see us as human beings. Many of our identities are being reduced these days. But actually, we exist, breathe, sing, dance, laugh, and tell jokes. LGBTQ lives aren't just tragic, dramatic, and full of debate.
"When you boil it back down to childhood, to the joy and the innocence that we all once had… it makes people look at the present day a little bit more different and think: 'why can't we just celebrate grown-up kids wearing wool wigs?'"
My Son's a Queer (But What Can You Do?) is at Ambassador's Theatre till 1 April 2023.