Brighton play will recall "spate of homophobic arrests that rocked a village"

It’s a one-man show, but as  performer Tom Marshman says, there are plenty of other voices as he brings A Haunted Existence to the stage.

Tom Marshman
Tom Marshman

Coming to Brighton’s Marlborough Theatre on September 27 and 28, it offers a theatrical adaptation of a spate of homophobic arrests that rocked a quiet west country village. In 1954, a gay man called Geoffrey Patrick Williamson was arrested after approaching an undercover railway officer.

His prosecution led to the arrest of a number of other men, one of whom later killed himself while awaiting trial. For The News of the World, the case was a “vice” threatening to “spread infidelity.”

Tom sees it as a responsibility to continue to tell other people’s stories of oppression. The show underlines the importance of upholding these forgotten legacies.

For the show, Tom weaves storytelling, vinyl music and projection to pay homage to the men and ask how far we have really come in terms of LGBT rights.

“I went to an LGBT conference in Bristol and I was introduced to the story by one of the speakers, and so I started doing some research. There was this young man Geoffrey Patrick Williamson who was on a train and he made an advance to a man who turned out to be a plain-clothed railway officer.”

Whether it was an entrapment or simply a random encounter, Tom doesn’t know, but Geoffrey was taken to Taunton police station.

“He gave the police a list of men that he had met and had sex with. There was a chain of investigations. There was a witch hunt at that point. They would have used different coercive techniques to get a confession.”

What struck Tom, though, were Geoffrey’s words on his arrest: “He said ‘You find this morally wrong. I don’t.’ I found that so tenacious and so dramatic and so brave.”

In the show, Tom lip-syncs with the judge’s court speech: “He was quite lenient to some of the younger men. It was believed that until the age of something like 25, the men still had the capacity to change.”

The show is an important one: “A lot of people don’t understand or know that history, and it is relatively recent history. I think we need to appreciate the freedom that we enjoy today. Also I personally believe that there can be some level of inherited trauma that can be passed down through the community.”

Important too is the relevance to today. Tom believes that today the trans community is experiencing the kind of witch hunt that the gay community experienced back then.

“And also you have to remember all the countries today where it is illegal to be gay.

“There were 17 men involved and I have tried to work out what happened to them. They were regular people, farm workers and factory hands, but some of them were pretty hard to trace because their names are quite common.

“But really the reason I was drawn to this story were those words that Geoffrey said when he was arrested.”

Geoffrey has passed away now: “But we managed to make a connection with people that knew of him and liked him. They say that he was keen on amateur dramatics, so I think he might have quite liked this show!”

A Haunted Existence will come to The Marlborough on September 27 and 28 and tour the UK until November 30.