How a folk musical about dying alone became an unlikely queer love story

Amy (L) and Lily (R) in Fran Bushe's A Gig for Ghosts. (Mercedes Assad)

Fran Bushe’s new show A Gig for Ghosts confronts loneliness in London, processing grief and the beauty of new romance.

The LGBTQ+ folk musical follows the lives of Amy (Hanora Kamen) and Lily (Rori Hawthorn). The former, Amy, documents death every day, often when bodies are found weeks after they have deceased. 

Meanwhile, Lily is newly moved to London, working temp job after temp job – and trying to schedule in finding love along the way. 

The show is refreshing in its candidness, not shying away from topics society often tries to turn a blind eye to – an epidemic of loneliness and the burden of grief.

Although it quickly delves into the endearing love story between Amy and Lily, punctuated by sometimes sweet and sometimes jolly songs, it is the fear of being alone that holds this show together. 

Amy’s job opens her and the audience’s eyes to just how many people die alone, and aren’t found until their next-door neighbour smells something funky, or the local newsagent notices a certain face hasn’t popped around in a while. 

In fact, it was this very concept that spurred the now 36-year-old Bushe to begin writing this story when she was 23. 

“In 2006, there was a new story about someone called Joyce Vincent, who had passed away but her body wasn’t found for two years. It was a really, really big news story.

“I think everyone just felt this enormous sadness that someone could completely disappear,” Fran Bushe tells PinkNews.

Bushe had recently graduated as an actor in London. “I had quite a lonely university experience,” she admits, “I think people always think that at university you come out with this tight group of friends. But it just hadn’t felt like that. So I think it really resonated with me. 

“I knew that I wanted to write something about how easy it is for people to just disappear.”

Since then the script has morphed and changed and undergone countless revisions, and didn’t even necessarily start as a love story between two women. 

“As I’ve grown up, and as I’ve learned more about myself, that was just a really natural progression for me. And now, I cannot imagine it being any other way,” she says about finally settling on Amy and Lily as her protagonists.

I think I accidentally wrote a very post-pandemic play.

In fact, it was only after the script had been completed that Bushe learned that women are more likely to be lonely than men

And not only that, but within the LGBTQ+ community, a Just Like Us survey showed 87 per cent of lesbians reported feeling more lonely.

The show sensitively explores both Amy and Lily’s realities of having no support base, and their fears and anxieties. 

Rori Hawthorn as Lily (L) Hanora Kamen as Amy and Liz Kitchen as Maud. (Mercedes Assad)

In full swing: Rori Hawthorn as Lily (L) Hanora Kamen as Amy and Liz Kitchen as Maud. (Mercedes Assad)

As for how grief comes into the mix? At the beginning of the play we are told Lily is dead, and what follows is the series of events leading up to it. 

In light of a global pandemic that was marked by isolation and unrelenting grief, Bushe’s work feels more needed than ever. 

“I think that there is a real need for us to mark what we went through and talk about it and grieve because I think we all lost something,” Bushe explains. 

“It was so easy for people to drift out of your life because you weren’t seeing them at work, or regularly. I found a lot of people I know were really thinking about who is important to them

“I think I accidentally wrote a very post-pandemic play. Without it being anything to do with that.”

Despite the sadness that permeates the show, it is almost surprisingly full of joy, not least helped by the gorgeous soundtrack pulling it together. 

As a queer woman, Becky CJ – the composer who came on board to write the score – was immediately drawn to the play.

“I was compelled by the fact that the story was being told through the lens of a queer couple, but it wasn’t the focal point of what was going on,” she explains. “I just think that’s so refreshing to have.”

Hanora Kamen as Amy. (Mercedes Assad)

Hanora Kamen’s Amy ponders death in A Gig for Ghosts. (Mercedes Assad)

Although there is an implication that Lily has had trouble being accepted for who she is by her family, it doesn’t really go beyond that. 

“You’re leaving that for the audience to infer rather than making an obvious statement,” CJ explains, “because I think that’s when things become cliched and expected. When you’re telling them that this is the story that happens to queer people.”

Both Hanora Kamen and Rori Hawthorn bring Amy and Lily to life on stage, through singing and poignant acting that radiates warmth even in the darkest moments of the show.

They are joined by Liz Kitchen who plays Maud and Aunty Gina; characters who bring the show laugh-out-loud lines and moments that move the audience to tears. 

As for what they hope audiences take from the show. Well, it’s simple. 

“I hope they want to text or call someone that they love,” Fran Bushe says. “And cling a little tighter to the people they love,” CJ concludes.
Fran Bushe’s A Gig For Ghosts is running in Soho Theatre until 12 November. Buy tickets here.