Theatre of Changing Spaces: Kings Cross in the '80s

Written by: Tom Wright

“Only last night I found myself lost

by the station called King’s Cross.

Dead and wounded on either side,

you know it’s only a matter of time.”

[Pet Shop Boys – Kings Cross]

It’s the night after the play and I’m standing at the bar of ‘The Big Chill House’ on Pentonville Road in Kings Cross. It’s ‘Throwback Thursday’ (#TBT) and happy hour is definitely over.

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It’s the kind of bar where a weak ginger beer will set you back a fiver and the ‘Chill ’N Fizz’ cocktail costs a tenner. Champagne (if you’re celebrating) is sixty-five pounds. Behind the bar, vinyl records are theatrically displayed and further beyond, the sparse ‘Thursday is the new Friday’ crowd shuffle to 80s hits. Towering over them is a large bubble font mural that proclaims ‘Good Times!’.

The property developers…they were like ‘oh we’re going to make Kings Cross urban and gritty yet safe and secure’. You don’t have a clue about this area.

Character from Tom Marshman’s ‘Kings Cross (Remix)’

I’m here tonight as a tourist. I’ve come to see a small piece of what has been lost. I’m here because thirty years ago, London’s LGBTQ community made this Big Chill House a home; it was known then as ‘The Bell’.

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It was a hedonistic church with an unruly congregation. A place where devoted bacchants consumed enough ecstasy to kill the whole of Manchester. A place where topless men in kilts juggled flaming batons and radical love was the norm. A place where many people lived and many people died. I’m here because last night, I met some of the ghosts who haunt this bar.

I encountered them at Camden People’s Theatre, in performance artist Tom Marshman’s play King’s Cross (Remix). The show is a poignant eulogy for a bygone era. Weaving together verbatim techniques, archive footage, music and movement, Marshman presents a mixtape of stories drawn from the 80s Kings Cross scene.

We hear from, amongst others, “The Artist”, “Suey-Sue”, a man teasingly dubbed “Mrs Bridges”.

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They recall a time before Grindr, when gay love was consigned to the back seats of cars parked under bridges. When HIV/AIDS was known as GRID (Gay-related immune deficiency) and word of its arrival spread not through rolling news but Chinese whispers. A time before gay marriage and the repealing of Section 28. Before assimilation and gentrification. When young men gelled their hair with wood glue and the air at ‘The Bell’ hung thick with smoke and the smell of poppers. A time when volunteers at the ‘Gay Switchboard’ took phone calls from desperate men standing on precipitous bridges.

I’ve thrown away my phonebook cos I can remember the numbers of the people who are still alive.

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Marshman doesn’t ‘become’ his characters, instead he acts as “conduit” for them. At times he relays their stories third hand, at others he plays recordings of interviews directly – synching his lips to the words. The affect is uncanny, funny and unsettling.

Set and costume are nominal. Instead, Marshman fills the space with deft gestures, a glorious play-list and the stories of his subjects themselves. He is an adept story-teller and his performance brims with warmth, charm and affection. The show ends with an invitation to dance with him, to collectively reenact ‘The Bell’ circa 1985.  Like the best funerals, the play is both a mourning and a celebration.

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Back at the Big Chill House (The Bell), the smoking area/roof terrace is closed and the bouncer won’t let me outside with what’s left of my drink. Forgoing my cigarette, my mate Ollie offers to buy another round and the barman laughs when I ask him what their cheapest pint of lager is. The dance floor has grown a little fuller. Everyone seems to be having a pretty good time, except for a surly looking guy who’s drinking champagne alone in the corner. Two straight couples are making out at opposite ends of a plush alcove christened “The Snug”.

Ollie and I step outside to leave and it’s pouring with rain. We shelter by an off license and an old man, wearing what looks like a sort of homemade illuminati symbol necklace, stops to chat. He’s been in Kings Cross for decades and remembers it all but he’s also quite vague on the details. I break my phone screen whilst trying to order an Uber.

Before leaving the bar, Ollie and I paid four pounds to have our picture taken in the photo booth. Predictably, it only took card. 

Kings Cross Remix runs from the 16th – 27th of May at Camden People’s Theatre. Find tickets here.

Learn more about writer and performer, Tom Marshman.

Check out the “I remember The Bell in Kings Cross” Facebook page.

Photos c/o T

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