In 2019 I enthusiastically read Ashton Applewhite’s “This
Chair Rocks: A Manifesto against Ageism” and was immediately drawn to this concept.
‘I want to be age queer by rejecting not my age but the fixed
meanings that people assign to it, the roles and stereotypes that…. (I) decline
to abide by. I claim my age at the same
time that I challenge its primacy and its value as a signifier.’ (Applewhite,
I lost no time
sounding it out amongst friends of all ages, gay and straight, and via arts
networks I am linked to. It always
triggered a smile; here’s something new,
We liked it. Then there was Covid.
It seemed that all the sterling work that had been done to challenge age
stereotypes and the homogenisation of later life went down the tubes. Older people became the lumpen, vulnerable
So why theatre? I have
been in the business of showing rather than telling for most of my life. Drama school, drama teacher, community
theatre, then a much valued detour around academic sociology and gerontology,
before finding myself going full circle back to theatre. Bizarre that I should
get work as an actor in my sixties when even a PhD wasn’t going to get me a
job. I had to up my game, reskill and
learn new conventions far removed from my initial training in the 70’s. The collision of these complimentary
disciplines that had so enriched my life was inevitable. I wanted to create theatre far removed from
what I call ‘DDD’ drama, whether on
stage or film. By this I mean the current
proliferation of ‘decline, dependency and dementia’ narratives, however
excellent and relevant.
I envisaged age
queer functioning firstly, as a provocation. I wanted to give voice not only to my fellow
children of the 60’s, the activists and
free spirits I have grown up and grown older with, but also anyone,
whatever their age, at odds and
uncomfortable with the status quo in the U.K. Conformist, reductive approaches to later life
perpetrated by the Government, the
Market, the Media and unfortunately some
of the charities dedicated to older people, however well-meaning. We cannot see our faces in the sanitised world
view they represent. But it’s those
faces and their voices that dominate policy and practice and not ours.
Secondly, as a counter-blast. A challenge to the way these institutions
use chronological age to bracket-off older men and women from the mainstream of
society. Being an ‘older’ person often
begins at 55 in the U.K.
Interventions and activities targeted at those who are 55+ are a feature
of every neighbourhood, representations of which reinforce a dominant narrative
of what ageing should be: respectably
active, virtuously healthy. Ignored is
the fluid, dynamic nature of the individual life course. At this point I’d be very remiss not to point
out that gerontologists have been rattling cages like for ever, but the(gate)
keepers, the policy makers are seemingly deaf. Life Course sociology in this
field has indicated that the traditional stages of a life should no longer be
informing public policy as it did during the 20th century. For heaven’s sake, many over-55’s are mums
and dads at the primary school gate or contemplating a new career rather than
Thirdly and in light of the above, I wanted age queer
to be a wake-up call. I wanted to flag
up the complexity of older generations, forged by the cultural and political
changes they have lived through. All
this is overlooked by a tick-box approach to diversity that lends itself to having the dimensions of your later life
calibrated by algorithm. I love the way
the author, Elif Shafak underscores this in a remarkable talk: ‘So slowly and systematically we are
denied the right to be complex…. I have multiple attachments just like all of
us do. And multiple attachments mean
multiple stories.’ 
Elif’s focus here is the
authoritarian state. The question
is how authoritarian, particularly in the wake of Covid, and Brexit, has the current U.K. administration become?
Having served very well to establish a distinction from
traditional and conformist expectations of heterosexuality, I like the way queer
can be re-purposed to define an individual’s divergence from normative and
often negative expectations of later life.
But if you use a concept you have
to do justice to it. I did not want it
to qualify visible difference or behaviours; just some up-to-date term to
replace what have often been markers of disapproval, for example, being ‘bohemian’
or ‘eccentric’. Nor should it
reflect the optics of being cool across generations. I was struck at the time by the musician Paul
Weller, lounging in a designer chair, cigarette in hand, on the cover of his
album True Meanings . An image I could identify with in a broadly
tribal sense, but it does not hint at the potential of age queerness and the
work it is capable of in asserting individual self-determination.
A natural corollary presented itself. Queer theory, as a
philosophical standpoint, has for some time offered an understanding of
contemporary, later life in line with our Life Course sociologists. As
Linn Sandberg suggests:
‘Queer temporality may thus challenge what is considered
normal and good ageing but also reveal the taken for grantedness of normative
time…….. by thinking queer theory and old age together a resurrection of
knowledges is made possible, outside the good, successful and respectable old
age.’(Sandberg, L. 2008)
So we can subvert the institutional use of chronological age
as a means of managing the ageing demographic
when we turn our attention to our preferred place in the fabric of time,
regardless of our birth date. We need to draw out life course events that
matter to us and the imprint they leave on our world-view, values and decision-making.
In the play, “Age Queer” I wanted to demonstrate an historical sense of
self and a rejection of the assumed life trajectories imposed on us by the
institutions described above; the straight, socially conservative, middle
England version of events that evokes so much anger in my peers.
At the beginning of 2021 I submitted a draft script to
Theatre West for their Arts Council funded,
Zooming Ahead scheme for women writers. Mine was one of ten scripts out of a total of
eight-three to be awarded support. My
script underwent considerable redrafting thanks to the dramaturgical, moral and
intellectual input provided by Theatre West.  I was given three, Zoom readings by some
amazing actors who captured characters I’ve grown very fond of.
At the time of writing, theatres are barely beginning to recover, so
under current circumstances a future production remains a hope rather than a
Here’s an overview of the way I have structured my play,
indicating how the fusion of history, identity and material culture, once embedded in the
characters’ younger lives, determine their world view in the present.
Central to the drama is an older character, a sociologist,
aware of their own vulnerability to ageing by stereotype or algorithm and furious
at the institutional appropriation of their date of birth.
So don’t fuck about with my age. That would be messing with my sense of time
which belongs to me. My being in the
world, where I’m at.
To investigate the age queer thesis, they conduct an
ethnography on the lives of two friends via their roles as participants in,
and custodians of a sensual, radical
history: Alan, an architect and gay man
and Norma, a barmaid, an occasional escort and later an artist. I decided that
Alan and Norma should be played by younger actors throughout, not least to
underscore the paradox of them being talked down to in the later scenes of the
I adapted participant
observation methodology for theatre. As participant, our sociologist intervenes
in the action: as a policeman, a thug, a
charity volunteer, funeral director, M.P. and care assistant. As
observer, they mediate between
Alan and Norma and ourselves as audience. So they are alternately intruder
and provocateur within the action, or
guide, critic and narrator outside it.
An off-centre zone of a minimal set contains a desk and laptop from
which the sociologist pulls up iconic,
relevant images for projection. Beside it a coat stand holds coats and jackets
to distinguish their participant roles.
The play is in two
acts: the first set in London in 1981 and the second act shifting between the
present, when Alan and Norma are in their late sixties, and the
mid-1980’s. It begins with their
initial chance, chaotic meeting in a multi-storey car park in Bayswater,
London. An affinity develops between these
two, along with a sensibility and a breadth of vision, when they engage with two significant events
of that year. Alan, living on the New
Cross Road, shares his neighbours’ horror at the circumstances of the infamous
house fire. Norma will join him on the subsequent protest march, the Black
People’s Day of Action. We go to
Norma’s run-down flat share in Kilburn.
A casual visit by a policeman turns into an interrogation when he sees a
poster of IRA hunger striker, Bobby Sands,
Norma defending her feelings about his recent death. She is arrested as a sympathiser and taken to
Paddington Green police station for questioning.
SOCIOLOGIST:Your presence matters alongside the presence or absence
of someone else. Someone who’s been
brutalised by the State. But you
haven’t. You’ve been spared. But you’re still implicated. You’re within touching distance.
On her release, Alan takes Norma to the legendary, London, night
club Heaven. She dashes off to make
friends and have fun. Alan holds back. Finding himself isolated, he is confronted by a
mysterious thug from his past. He
physically bullies Alan, taunting him about his sexuality and challenging his
political activism. Norma returns,
excited to have met an artist called Mark (not an actual character) who, she
says, calls her his “Angel of History”.
The analogy here is the philosopher Walter Benjamin’s interpretation of
Paul Klee’s “Angelus Novus”.
Norma is touched by the fact that she is taken seriously, that she is
special. She is inspired to become an artist, Mark, her
I include this reference to underscore our friends’
relationship to the seismic events of that decade, the epiphanies that require
them to reorient their lives and that distance them both from the perceived,
and often tired, cultural tropes
associated with their chronological age.
SOCIOLOGIST as THUG: (to Alan) Later down the line, the line of your
privileged life, the only history expected of you is what was top of the Hit
Parade when you met your wife or when you ate your first Vesta Chow Mein
act of the play begins with our friends, now in their late 60s, enjoying a
drinking session in a suburban café.
Norma, is an artist and Alan, a successful architect. They are interrupted by a charity volunteer (the Sociologist again in role) promoting age-appropriate activities for the ‘over 55s’. As the wine flows, the
action is punctuated by ironic,
childhood guessing games reinforcing Alan and Norma’s resistance to the bland stereotyping the
volunteer unwittingly imposes on them:
ALAN: In my left
hand I have what is called a Diamond
Card. Smacks of aspiration don’t you
think? Like an American Express Gold
Card? Now watch carefully the
interaction between the card and my
mottled, wrinkled, right hand.
Hey presto – it’s an Old Age Pensioners’
Bus Pass. Once on that bus I might as
well lick my Diamond Card and slap it on my forehead like so…….. Flash this
card and my masculinity, my sexuality, my professional identity evaporates.
power balance shifts once the charity volunteer reveals his day job is that of
a funeral director, his sales patter turning to the extensive range of coffins
Alan and Norma might chose. He singles
out Norma as a problem, a transgressive refusenik, deviating from the
traditional old age society expects of her. Until the inevitable meeting with
himself. After he leaves, Norma finds yet another childhood pursuit to
explicate her own distinctive queerness for our benefit. Like
many contemporary café bars there is a children’s corner with a toy box. Alan notices an Action Man doll, abandoned, trousers round its ankles:
you’re queer then so am I. Like Action
Man I don’t fit into any box. Put me in
there with Peter Rabbit or some artisan, crafted, rag doll and I tell you it
wouldn’t end well. Watch this.
Yet our sociologist remains unsatisfied,
needing to understand more about Alan
and Norma. So we return to the 1980’s,
in fact 1986, this time shift serving as both prelude and contrast to the final
scene. There we find Alan in a flat that
belonged to the aforementioned Mark, he
and Norma having become close friends
with him. They, with others, have been
caring for him in his final days before dying of HIV/Aids. Alan is packing away
some of his valued possessions. Norma
arrives, wearing a kimono of Mark’s she refuses to part with. She has just had
an abortion. They share what becomes an
emotionally charged task, each of Mark’s belongings evoking a celebration of friendship,
intimacy and sensuality. Norma tells
Alan she has slept with Mark and that she loved him. They are harshly disturbed by Mark’s
estranged brother, an M.P., (the Sociologist in role).
I needed this scene not
only to demonstrate the M.P.’s nasty prejudices, but also for its focus on
artefacts and sensuality. An over-riding
memory for me is the heart felt,
material quality of care and solidarity
provided for friends and lovers with HIV/Aids during their final
days. Much later in my life, when
researching elder care, I realised that this loving attention to detail was in
stark contrast to the market-led, bargain-basement offer experienced by so many
older men and women today.
P.O: So, Lord Algorithm, how do you
capture this? How do you make sense of
all our muddled, messy, but oh, so sensual lives? The glue that bonds our emotions. Whether it’s a cologne, a bottle of wine or
the stash of weed hidden in Mark’s bedside table that Alan failed to find. What matters to you?
I will say little about the final scene which is set in a
care home in the present. Norma is there
for reablement after a stroke. Alan can
only watch as she refuses to eat,
occupying herself making a pirate
hat and paper planes out of a copy of the Daily Mail. Sensuality and history will coalesce as
this scene is played out.
The play is self-reflective.
The action is set in London,
where I have spent most of my life: the Bayswater multi-storey car park, where
my sex-worker friend took clients; low-rent flats in Kilburn, communities sympathetic
to Irish Nationalism and resentful of British troops in Northern Ireland;
references to pubs and clubs, like the Grenadier where I once worked, the
Hawley Arms and Heaven. The tragedy of
the New Cross Fire impacted on East London teachers like myself; those
youngsters might have been our pupils.
The solidarity we felt with the multicultural communities we served, and
where we lived, needed realisation and this I did through the character of Alan
for whom the New Cross Road was where he not only felt at home but valued in
The later, contemporary scenes, the identikit, suburban café bar and the
equally identikit, suburban care home,
are familiar to us all, particularly the latter if we have had to seek, in
desperation, long-term care for a relative. Here I have also drawn on data from
my own doctoral research
and the stories accumulated from friends about their relatives in long-term
care; the cultural shortcomings and the inevitable cherished items getting
“lost”. What I have tried to capture throughout, as an
ethnographer might, is a sense of place:
affective, hostile or liminal, rich description woven into the characters’ narrative as we
move from scene to scene.
The action is busy and physical. If there is a constant running through the
play it is both the allusion to, or enactment of childhood games. Firstly, as
paradox, given the infantilisation to which so many older people are
subjected to. Secondly, as a reflection
of the way we use play and games as a means of self-determination, even
rebellion. Thirdly, games injected a
dynamic unpredictability into the action.
One curious thing though.
The very ending of the play was conceived early on and did not change throughout each
iteration. I needed to demonstrate that
our intrinsic sensuality and lust for self-determination should, by rights, endure to the very end.
My fingers remain
crossed that “Age Queer” will eventually be produced. Maybe age
queer will gain traction as a preferred identity but my aim, as both a
theatre maker and gerontologist, is that my venture will kick start conversations about cultural
diversity and complexity across the life course and ways in which we can resist
the creeping authoritarianism and
disrespect for human rights meted out in later life.
 Applewhite, A. 2019. This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto
Against Ageism. London: Melville House.
 I’d recommend Chris Gilleard’s and Paul Higg’s work.
Eg. Gilleard, C. & Higgs, P. 2013. Ageing, Corporeality and Embodiment,
London: Anthem Press.
 Sandberg, L. (2008) The Old, the Ugly and the Queer:
thinking old age in relation to queer theory. Graduate Journal of Social
Science – 2008 – Vol. Issue 2.
 My thesis: Truth to the Materiality of Later Life:
the Significance of the Aesthetic for the Support of Older People (2015) University of Bristol. Available online via the British Library.