Last weekend, a remarkable thing happened.
Two actors stood on three different stages, and became the characters that I’d be stewing over for the last three months. They spoke the words I’d scripted, and transformed them; in their mouths they were funnier, or smarter, or more heartfelt than anything I’d written down. This is the magical part of theatre that I never get used to. You send your hawk away from you, and it comes back with something in its beak that you could never have imagined.
Quite a few people came along to watch.
I suppose I should be accustomed to this by now. An hour before our first show, when my wife asked me if I was nervous, I told her no, because I knew I was in safe hands. I had already visited the actors in rehearsal; under the watchful and generous gaze of director Helen Parry, I knew that they had turned my flimsy little pages of text into something worthy of an audience. And yet, as I took my seat, and the lights went down, and a room full of the great and the good in the world of LGBT academia descended into a hush, I still found myself rigid with tension. I held my breath until Jo uttered the first line.
Mister Stokes has been a remarkable play to work on. It began at the end of last year, when I was commissioned to write a historically accurate play based on the life of an LGBT figure from Manchester’s history. My eye fell very quickly upon the story of Harry Stokes.
Not a huge amount of evidence about him survives, and the sensationalised (and often fictionalised) newspaper articles about him take some sifting through. But we do know that he was a bricksetter and chimney doctor who lived and worked in Manchester and Salford during the Victorian era. He was married twice; the first marriage breaking down when his wife took him to court for mistreating her and withholding household expenses. Nevertheless, he was well thought of professionally. He was a special police constable. He ran several alehouses, and reached the level of superintendent in the building trade.
It was only when he was found drowned in the River Irwell in 1859 (the newspapers excitedly claim that he was standing upright, and only spotted thanks to his top hat floating on the surface of the water, but who knows) and examined the body, that they discovered he was biologically female.
Well. That’s the way I phrase it, anyhow. The truth is always more complicated and more slippery than the stories we tell about it; when we try to put history on stage, it is always through the lens of how we see the world. Other people’s lives, even when thoroughly researched, will inevitably become intermingled with our own. One of the fascinating things about LGBT history, is that you have to sift through hundreds of years of oppression for the facts, to try and give voice to the people that the history books have rendered silent and invisible. We will never get it quite right. The retelling is always a work in progress.
And yet. Through whatever imperfect dramatisation of real events we achieved, our production of Mister Stokes: The Man-Woman of Manchester, seemed to make a connection with our audiences. My nerves on opening night remained only until the first time the audience laughed. I had always intended to make something that could be funny, and warm, and loving, even in a piece set in a mortuary, haunted by the lives of trans people like Harry that have been needlessly difficult and tragic. Our wonderful actors, Joey Hateley and Jo Dakin, found a lightness of touch and a playfulness that made the piece feel truly human. Feedback was great, we’ve had a lovely review, and I am all a-glow with successful play vibes.
Enormous thanks are due to our wonderful creative team, headed up by producers Stephen Hornby and Ric Brady of Pagelight Productions, which also included marvellous stage manager and sound designer Phil Buckley, and magician-like movement director Ceris Faulkner. To our brilliant historical advisers: Emma Vickers, Billie-Gina Thomason, Stephen Whittle and Jenny White. Also to LGBT History Month, for giving us a platform, to the staff at the Martin Harris Centre, the People’s History Museum and MMU Business School for taking care of us, and to all the festival audiences over the weekend who came along to meet Mister Stokes.
I am so very grateful. I’m not someone who believes that Harry himself was watching over us, but I like to think he might have been proud. I hope his story will go on to be told to wider audiences, whether that’s through my words or someone else’s. I owe him a great debt, for lending me his history.
Find out more
Take a look at the full set of Mister Stokes production photos, snapped by Nicholas Chinardet
Read more about the show on the Pagelight Productions website
For more about the history of Harry Stokes, take a look at this great blog post from Jenny White