A performance of GRILLS at Camden People's Theatre

GRILLS at Camden People’s Theatre:
Space invaders


In 1987, the Camden Lesbian Centre & Black Lesbian Group (CLCBLG) opened a community centre in the titular London borough. However, it was a divisive time for LGBTQ+ rights in Britain and the unique project faced a lot of opposition, forcing it to close in 1995. Now, GRILLS – a thought-provoking new play in collaboration between MIRRORBALL and Camden People’s Theatre – chronicles these events and draws parallels between what was happening then and what’s happening now.

The 1980s was an era of shoulder pads, Rubik’s Cubes and the New Romantics. Yet, nothing was endearing about the commonly held attitudes towards the LGBTQ+ community: queer people received opprobrium from the majority of the general public and a united media, with male non-straights being deemed abnormal and blamed for the AIDS epidemic; and Thatcher’s Conservative administration introducing legislation (Clause 28 in May 1988) that banned the ‘promotion of homosexuality’ by local authorities.

It was against this antagonistic backdrop that CLCBLG came into being in 1987. In essence, two grassroots outfits that had formed a few years before, the Camden Lesbian Centre and the Black Lesbian Group, joined forces partly to better tackle issues like racism, sexism, and homophobia. They still had to find a venue, which was always going to be a challenge due to the aforementioned hostile environment, and the abolishment of the Greater London Council by the Tories in 1986 (the Local Government Act, 1985), depriving the CLCBLG of some of its leading supporters. Notwithstanding, in 1986, a licence was finally granted for a disused commercial facility in Camden and history was made as the only-ever-of-its-kind women’s queer community centre opened just a few months later…

If you ask us, unless you’re old enough to remember the period, it’s easy to underplay just how much of an LGBTQ+ landmark said launch was. That’s because firstly, it’s remarkable the venture even got off the ground considering all the different entities that raged against it. And secondly, such places aren’t simply where individuals gather and hang out; they’re secure, trustworthy settings where people can be their real selves – places which offer the opportunity to discover queer history and indulge in the creative arts.

GRILLS, an alternative take on the word girls, is a poignant retelling of the key moments in the development of the CLCBLG. Co-directed and written by Chloe Christian and Olivia Dowd, the fascinating play is currently headlining The Camden Roar Festival at the eponymous Camden People’s Theatre (until Saturday 22nd June). During the fast-talking show’s 75-minute runtime, its main protagonist, avowed geek Val, researches the CLCBLG. This results in a 400-mile trip to Glasgow, where the erstwhile group’s archive is, to learn about its founders.

Always entertaining, this exceptional comedy-thriller adroitly highlights some of the similarities between 1980s Britain and the Britain of today. Unfortunately, a lot of these comparisons are disconcerting, with a certain concern being the LGBTQ+ community’s lack of access to queer spaces. Of course, the fact the CLCBLG was the only one of its kind illustrates the dearth of such areas for females in the late 1980s and early 1990s, but the situation was basically replicated for men – there were very few clubs or other sorts of meetups.

And presently, the closure of non-heterosexual venues sadly continues apace. 60% of said places in the capital – long heralded as a mecca of inclusivity and progress – shut down between 2006 and 2022 (there’s a comparable picture in the rest of the country), according to Greater London Authority stats. This can be for various reasons: exorbitant rents, big-city gentrification, gays frequenting straight joints as they feel more socially accepted, etc.

In light of this existential risk, we find it paramount something’s done not only to protect remaining LGBTQ+ spaces but also that new ones are opened. This is particularly so with regard to sapphic spots, as there is a significantly smaller number, and because women especially require safe environments. The more of those we can create, the more inclusive and cohesive of a society do we live in. Ultimately, this can only make it a stronger society, too.


Photography by Harry Elletson and courtesy of Camden People’s Theatre

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