‘It’s very rebellious to be joyful’: Rob Madge on the West End return of hit show My Son’s a Queer

Ahead of their return to the West End, the creator and star of My Son’s a Queer reflects on the radical potential of queer joy, the lasting legacy of their late grandfather, and why being a non-binary cow is so important.

An autobiographical tale celebrating the joy and chaos of raising a queer child, Madge is returning to the West End stage this month with their critically acclaimed show My Son’s A Queer (but What Can You Do?) following sold-out runs at the Turbine Theatre, Garrick Theatre and the Edinburgh Fringe.

If you’re unfamiliar with the premise of the show, the inspiration behind it will almost certainly strike a chord. Centred around Madge’s goal of recreating a fabulous, childhood dream of a Disney parade, the production looks to the past to trace Madge’s sexuality journey through home videos of the performer putting on living room shows for their family members.

Rob Madge is back on the West End with ‘My Son’s a Queer (But what can you do?)’ at the Ambassadors Theatre (Mark Senior)

Speaking exclusively to PinkNews, Madge says that capturing the joyous feeling of childlike freedom as a queer adult is one of the driving forces behind the show.

“I want people to leave feeling [a collective feeling of joy], and know that we’re part of a brilliant, beautiful community,” they explain. “And that it’s quite easy to have a nice time. It feels quite rebellious to be joyful. And it feels like such a difficult concept to just have a laugh and smile.”

My Son’s a Queer, Madge explains, is a direct response to the pervasive ‘Bury Your Gays’ trope, in which LGBTQ+ characters are far more likely to die in mainstream media than their cisgender, heterosexual counterparts (see Killing Eve, Orange is the New Black and Game of Thrones for more details). On the contrary, Madge’s production provides fabulous evidence that it’s possible for queer individuals to experience pure, unadulterated joy.

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“It’s a very rebellious thing to have joy, especially in queer stories,” they say. “I hope people leave knowing that queer life, livelihoods can be lovely, and happy and uplifting. There’s nothing scary about it. There’s nothing controversial about it. It’s just another way of living life as a human being.

“It’s a very simple story, but I think it’s one that just isn’t seen enough; if you support and nurture, with unconditional love, no matter who you are, you can grow up to have a happy, fulfilling life.”

Queer joy is all the more radical in the current climate, which has seen a marked increase in divisive and hateful anti-trans rhetoric. Unsurprisingly, Madge’s message to lawmakers using queer people as political pawns hinges on acceptance.

“It’s so hard to open someone’s eyes when they want them to be firmly shut. There’s no point trying to convince someone who ain’t interested in being convinced.

“All I can offer is the show – if they want to come and join in, please do. I will welcome anybody to come and watch this show, no matter what your viewpoint is, because I don’t want to be preaching to the choir here.”

Madge also emphasises that the ‘debate’ on trans lives centres around a perceived “collective moral panic,” rather than a case-by-case basis respecting those concerned as individual human beings. It’s this hysteria, they say, that erases their own lived experience as a non-binary artist.

“You can say non-binary people don’t exist and that it’s a nonsense – but I’m non-binary. I’m here, I’m not an alien”

“All we can do is keep living our lives and continue thriving, because no matter what they say, or what they think about us as human beings, [that] doesn’t change anything about me.

“You can say non-binary people don’t exist and that it’s a nonsense – but I’m non-binary. I’m here, I’m not an alien. Well, maybe I am, but you saying that doesn’t change anything about my existence.”

Madge, who also starred as “gorgeous, non-binary cow” alongside Dawn French in the recent pantomime Jack and the Beanstalk at the London Palladium, says that these inclusive roles undoubtedly contribute to a feeling of growing acceptance for non-binary artists.

“I was having they/them pronouns used for me in the script, and I was only playing a cow, let’s not get too deep, but… things like that won’t be noticed by people who are against it, because it’s very simple.

“But those that those that do identify or understand, they will have noticed that tiny little change in the script, and I think that’s what’s special; we’re slowly working our way in, introducing it carefully and delicately for the masses.”

The word “queer” has recently found itself at the centre of its own debate, with The Guardian sharing a letter from a 66-year-old read who deemed the word “derogatory.”

“I suspect that many of the others, like me, consider the term to be insulting… and certainly not ‘reclaimed,” they wrote.

Madge’s response to this is characteristically understanding. While they respect those views, they are keen to emphasise that their own queerness makes them “brilliant and special and unique.”

“Words only have the power that you give them,” they explain. “I’m using it in a celebratory sense. And I’m hoping that people who have had that word used against them negatively, can find some sort of solace in that.

“For me, it’s my identity. It’s how I identify. I’m very proud to be. There’s nothing new about using queer as an umbrella term.”

In many of the home videos in My Son’s a Queer, Madge’s parents and grandparents play a vital role in nurturing the young, queer performer. Madge’s “grandfather extraordinaire” sadly passed away earlier in January, but his legacy of love and inclusion counteracts the idea that bigotry stems from a generational divide – and it’s one aspect of My Son’s a Queer that Madge hopes will be a “great example” for anyone facing this argument.

“All it takes is one person – and they could have had the most unsupportive parents – to go: ‘I don’t want I don’t want to do what they did. I want to shift it.’ And that will make waves for generations to come. It would change the world.

“People who have been brought up to have bigotry in their hearts, [should] take a step back, open their eyes and go, ‘I don’t want to do that. I want to lead with love.’ As my grandparents always did.”

In the play, a particularly emotional moment comes when Madge’s grandparents unveil a handmade puppet theatre to facilitate their grandchild’s love of performing. For viewers of the play, both past and present, it will likely remind them of their own family – chosen or otherwise.

“It is shocking to people that someone from that generation would have made their grandson dresses and wigs out of wool,” Madge says. “I’m very proud of them. I’m proud to have had them, and blessed to have them.”

Ahead of their return to stage, Madge is looking forward to sharing their story with a live audience once more and facilitating an escape to a world that’s “a little bit nicer.”

“I love sharing the story. They just find it all quite daft and hilarious that it all came from some lockdown videos. But I’m just excited for people to to have a laugh with my family and me for an hour.”

My Son’s a Queer (But what can you do?) opens on 27 January and runs until 18 March at The Ambassadors Theatre.

Tickets are available here.