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Love, Shame and the Chemsex Epidemic

by Tom Wright

In the summer of 2016, I sat amongst a crowd of gay men, most of them friends, in a theatre in Islington. House music pumped through the sound system. Onstage, five guys, semi-naked, partied before us. The audience exhaled nervous giggles and gossipy whispers as the lights shifted. The piece was 5 Guys Chillin’ by Peter Darney, and as each character spoke verbatim, recounting their relationship to drugs, sex and the powerful combination of the two. The tension was palpable.

The King’s Head Theatre has been committed to championing LGBTQI+ voices for many years, but I respect them most for being amongst the first to stage plays about the Chemsex crisis in London. Don’t get me wrong; it wasn’t news to my friends and I. But there’s something crucial in the act of being represented through stories that has such a powerful effect. In that intimate venue there was no avoiding the stark reality of the scene.

Skip forward a year and the King’s Head Theatre delivered again by housing Patrick Cash’s eloquent The Chemsex Monologues, which weaved four fictional narratives, caught up in the party. Carefully handled, the piece guided us through intrigue, laughter, joy, then fear, heartbreak and loss. Discussions were stilted in the bar after the show. A friend of mine got on his phone, sent a few texts and quickly perked up. ‘Who wants to come to a party?’ He said. And we were off.

This swift segue provoked, compelled and inspired me to broach this subject in my own work. I asked myself  - what’s the next part of this conversation? How do we continue to explore this behaviour without feeding the same shame that drives so many gay men, from Oscar Wilde through Joe Orton to myself, to act self-destructively? And as importantly, what about those of us who have managed to survive? I wanted to offer hope. So I set out to write a story of recovery.

With the introduction of new drugs, both legal and otherwise, the entire landscape of sexual interaction has shifted in the LGBTQI+ community. Working with director, Rikki Beadle-Blair, we found a dramatic moment where all of these issues collide. The moment we have sex with someone for the first time.

This exciting premise became both satisfyingly simple and thrillingly complex. Two guys, one bed, real time over one evening. They’ve been dating for a while, having made a pact to do things the old fashion way; no sex for the first three months. And tonight is the night. But first they need to navigate the labyrinth of issues that obstruct us from being ourselves and trusting someone else; personal values, political differences, past traumas, drug reliance or HIV discordance. All the things that lurk undetectable within us.

I don’t know the solution to the chemsex epidemic. But I do know what drives many gay men into darkness. We all recognised that shame sitting in the King’s Head Theatre back in 2016. The conclusion we’ve reached is that the first step we must take back towards ourselves is love. We must truly accept who we are, everything we have experienced and love ourselves not in spite, but because of it. That’s the message of Undetectable – our roller-coaster ride towards love. Now we’re excited to see how it’s received both by our community and beyond, and for this vital conversation to continue.