Martin Harris Centre, Manchester.
20 February 2019.
In 1885, James W Wallace, an architect’s assistant from Bolton, established a book group for local working men, within his family home. This modest two-up two-down terraced house came to be known as Eagle Street ‘College’, a meeting place for a collective of like-minded “upstarts from the back streets trying to better themselves”.
Wallace had found spiritual solace in poet Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass following the death of his mother, and other members of the group shared his admiration for the American poet’s work. Adhesion of Love explores how Whitman’s poetry, with its unashamed celebration of love between men, strikes a chord with this close-knit group of friends, helping them to make sense of feelings which if expressed openly could lead to persecution and imprisonment.
The ‘college’ attracts a diverse bunch. Some struggle to admit their attraction to other men, even to themselves. Others revel in their adventures, bluntly detailing how they “tossed off the coal man” or yearn for a bit of “back scuttling”.
Wallace struggles to make sense of his feelings for Charles Sixsmith, a young mill worker who craves something more physical than romantic words. Still grieving for the loss of his mother, he finds himself at a spiritual and emotional crossroads.
Salvation comes for him, and other members of the reading group, through the unexpected transatlantic friendship they strike up with their literary idol Whitman, via a regular exchange of letters. At the promptings of his good friend Dr Johnston, Wallace heads over the ocean to visit the famous poet. The time he spends in America, described by Whitman as a place of “becoming”, will have a profound effect upon him.
The production emphasises the striking difference between his life in Lancashire and New Jersey. In Bolton there is uncertainty and much goes unsaid, in Whitman’s household ideas and feelings are more openly expressed, and there is a permissive air, the promise of possibilities.
The sparsely furnished set (designed to facilitate performances in libraries and community venues) echoes that contrast. The armchair and chaise longe that provide comfort and repose in scenes of life in America, are concealed beneath plain cotton throws when the action shifts to England – all covered up, and hidden from view, like the passions of the Eagle Street men.
Writer Stephen M Hornby has an eye for quirky detail. A stuffed pet canary popped in to the post to Bolton by Whitman as a token of friendship. The finest cotton undergarments sent as a cheeky gift to the poet from bold young Sixsmith. And as befits a play inspired by LGBT History Month, links are made to key queer figures of the time. Wallace’s group spend time with Edward Carpenter at Millthorpe, and there are references to Oscar Wilde’s visit to meet Whitman.
Hornby’s play makes it clear that none of the characters are undamaged by the prejudice and oppression of the period. Wallace and his friends live in constant fear of a charge of sodomy and being sent for trial at Manchester Assizes. Even Whitman’s fame and financial security can not protect him. His cherished affair with a trolley bus conductor is curtailed by well-meaning friends who, fearful for the poet’s reputation, give the young man money to ‘disappear’.
Conor Ledger’s thoughtful portrayal of James W Wallace creates a genuine sense of engagment with his situation. He is a man well aware of his limitations, a self-described “cheerful outline waiting to be coloured in”, but someone with “a streak of steel”, able to gather a group of loyal friends around him and grapple with big ideas. There are strong supporting performances from other members of the company too, particularly Dean Gregory’s randy plain-speaking Charles Sixsmith, and Billie Meredith’s generous and wise Walt Whitman. Her delivery, has a beautiful languorous quality to it, especially effective when she recites Whitman’s poetic words.
It’s a truly fascinating story. A life-changing connection forged between a group of gay Boltonians, and one of America’s most celebrated poets. Hornby spent six months researching it, and his desire to give a full account of his discoveries is understandable. However, it’s hard not to feel there is a much stronger (and shorter) play nestling within this lovingly curated, but overly populated, dramatisation.
Whitman has the final word, accompanying a moving visual flourish. Upon two matching high-backed chairs, in a pastiche of Victorian portraiture, two besuited men sit formally side by side. They share a moment of deep affection while, across the ages, Whitman offers an insight into his life for ‘Recorders Ages Hence‘,
“Whose happiest days were far away through fields, in woods, on hills, he and another wandering hand in hand, they twain apart from other men,
Who oft as he saunter’d the streets curv’d with his arm the shoulder of his friend, while the arm of his friend rested upon him also”.
Images by Lee Baxter
Thursday 28 February, 7:30pm – New Adelphi Studio, Salford
Saturday 16 March, 2:00pm – Bolton Museum, Bolton
Thursday 21 March, 7:00pm – Bolton Museum, Bolton
Friday 31 May, 7:30pm – Bolton Socialists Club, Bolton