Gay sweatshop



James Cartwright and Rik Makarem in rehearsal for “Passing By”, 2013 | Uncredited photographer/Tristan Bates Theatre | 14066

Gay Sweatshop was formed in London in 1974 and had its roots in the lunchtime theatre club “Ambience” held at the Almost Free theatre, which was an alternative theatre established in 1971 in Rupert Street, Soho, London W1 – audiences were expected to pay at least one penny for their admission ticket.

Founding members of Gay Sweatshop included John Roman Baker, Roger Baker, Ed Berman, Gerald Chapman, Norman Coates, Laurence Collinson, Suresa Galbraith, Drew Griffiths, Philip Osment, Alan Pope, Lloyd Vanata and Alan Wakeman. They wanted to set up the first Gay Theatre season in the UK to counteract the prevailing conception in mainstream theatre of what homosexuals were like, therefore providing a more realistic image for the public. They realised that a great deal of hard work was required and came up with the name The Gay Sweatshop and it became one of the best known gay theatre companies in the UK.

In 1975 they published a Manifesto which stated that the Company’s objective was:

To counteract the prevailing perception in mainstream theatre of what homosexuals were like, therefore providing a more realistic image for the public and to increase the general awareness of the oppression of sexuality, both gay and straight, the impact it has on people’s lives and the society that reinforces it.


Jingleball – a gay sweatshop production at the Edinburgh Fringe in August 1987 | Sharon Smullen/ Royal Holloway University archives | 14067

In 1975 the Campaign for Homosexual Equality invited Gay Sweatshop to perform at the annual conference in Sheffield. An Arts Council grant allowed them to put together “Mister X”, jointly written by the group and based on personal experiences and the book “With Downcast Gays: Aspects of Homosexual Self-Oppression” by Andrew Hodges and David Hutter. “Mister X” was a huge success and it went on tour. Many gay men and lesbians went to a gay play for the first time in their lives to see Mister X.

In 1976 Gay Sweatshop put on plays at the Institute of Contemporary Arts including “Mister X”, “Any Woman Can” by Jill Posener, “Randy Robinson’s Unsuitable Relationship” by Andrew Davies, Ian Brown’s “The Fork”, “Stone” by Edward Bond and “Indiscreet”, a follow up to “Mister X” written by Roger Baker and Drew Griffiths.

In 1977 BBC 2 televised a play by Noel Greig and Drew Griffiths, “Only connect”.

Gay Sweatshop was wound up and papers held by the Royal Holloway in the official archive indicate that the organisation was wound up in 1997.

In 1984, the talented Drew Griffiths, actor, playwright and one of the company originators was the tragic victim of a homophobic murder by a man he picked up at the Elephant and Castle. The single Why? from Bronski Beat’s album Age of Consent was dedicated to his memory. Drew Griffiths was 37.

I joined Gay Sweatshop in 1975. I joined with great fear and trepidation – after all, I could be ruining my career – (I remember vividly the first press call when I deliberately disassociated myself from the group, sat with my back to the cameras, afraid of being publicly identified as a homosexual) but somehow found the courage to direct two of the plays in the first season. At the end of the first six months I knew that the previous seven years had been preparation for this.’

Drew Griffiths

In 2008 Noel Greig commented on Drew:

He never recovered from the indignities of being gay, all that stuff I was talking about [the idignities of being a gay man pre-1967 and the legalisation of homosexuality in Britain]. I’m sure it wasn’t just that… but just thinking about Drew. But his passion. Gay Sweatshop was a mission for him.

Noel Greig died in 2009. His archive is preserved by the Rose Bruford College of Theatre and Performance.

Gerald Chapman died in 1987 aged 37.

Bryony Lavery, the well known dramatist, was for a time the artistic director.

David Benedict, the drama correspondent, was joint artistic director from 1988 to 1992.

The playwright Martin Sherman was also involved with Gay Sweatshop, especially contributing the play “Passing By” which has recently been
revived. In 2013 he told “Whats Peen Seen?”:

When Passing By was first produced it was unheard of to present a gay relationship with a sense of human normalcy about it, and so it had particular meaning to audiences within that context. Now that is taken for granted, theatrically, at least, and audiences are able to concentrate on the relationship itself…. I suspect I was fed up with the way gay characters were presented onstage and I wanted to write something that I thought was truthful and not suffused with self-pity or misery. Ah – that’s a slightly noble answer, and possibly self-serving; I would like to think I was carrying a banner. It’s probably more likely that I just wanted to write a play and write something that was familiar to me and my friends and made sense to us and was truthful to our lives…

Actor and playwright Kevin Elyot who acted with Gay Sweatshop died on 7 June 2014. Guardian obituary

Jill Posener obituary, Mike Kalemkerian

This post was amended on 22 July 2014 to include the obituary for Gay Sweatshop actor Kevin Elyot.


Two Gay Sweatshop Plays: As Time Goes by and The Dear Love of Comrades, Paperback – 6 Apr 1981 | Amazon | 14068

Due to the additional information our correspondents have kindly revealed, this post was republished on 1 August 2014.

Since the article was first researched, further information about Gay Sweatshop has become public and the post was expanded on 2 August 2014 to include these insights.

I would also like to thank my correspondents for their help in compiling this revision. Thank you!

The Official Gay Sweatshop Archive is held by the Royal Holloway University, London.



23 thoughts on “Gay sweatshop

  1. I too was a founding member. (Whose own contribution has been conveniently airbrushed from Gay Sweatshop’s subsequent poor attempts at providing `historically precise’ testament.


  2. The Gay Sweatshop came to the Old Profanity Showboat in 1983 or ’84 with a production called “Poppies”. They were touring it all over the UK but the reaction of a cleaning lady in one of their venues (“I will not clean up after them! I’ll get AIDS!”) made the national news and many of the venues cancelled their show. As owner and manager and booker and whatever for my ship, The Thekla, they called me to say they couldn’t come just for the door. They could only afford their full fee which was way beyond what we could afford. But I was outraged so I assured them their usual fee. And then I ran my ass off talking on every radio show I could find, and getting as much press as I could get. I had to double the ticket price. We were packed. People came out in support in wonderful numbers. They got their money and their show and we did not sink. How could they have shut down in ’81 when we weren’t even in Bristol with the good ship Thekla at the time?


    • I was in Gay Sweatshop’s production of Poppies when it played The Old Profanity Showboat – thanks for reminding me, I can picture it still. However, I think you may be putting two stories together. The cleaners’ strike nightmare was a couple of years later around our production of Compromised Immunity, the first UK play about AIDS. The cleaners who went on strike rather than clean the showers after us were at the Taliesin Theatre at Swansea University. The story hit the headlines in every newspaper except the Guardian in (I think) 1987 on the first day of the tour: Headline in the Daily Star: “Pansies go all of a doo-dah”).
      It was the support of individual venues, the people who ran them and our loyal audiences across the UK that made the company what it was. Thank you.
      David Benedict, joint artistic director 1988-92


      • Then there’s something very screwy here, David. I have newspaper clippings from the Bristol Post with the story I told on this site. I had walked away from the Old Pro by 1987. Could it have happened twice? Not hard to believe. I asked my daughter when I read your reply. She was 19 at the time. She remembers it just as I do. How odd.


      • YOu have the cuttings and a clearer memory! My dates may well be wrong. A bit of googling reveals the late Noel Grieg, author of Poppies, asserting that there a hoo-hah around 1983 when Poppies first toured. But that was before I joined the company in 1985, before I played Thekla and before and the really big coverage of the cleaners going on strike which definitely happened in my time. But openly gay work always ruffled feathers in those days – Exeter and Devon Arts Centre lost its local council funding because we toured there in the late Eighties – so maybe the same thing did happen twice.


      • I was a drama student at Swansea University, from 1984-7, and remember Sweatshop coming to the Taliesin, and the furore. I reckon it was in my first or early second year, either 84 or maybe late 85 – cus I was still shyer, not as out and not as politically savvy as I might have been. The drama students were invited to a workshop with Sweatshop which ran into a discussion on the withdrawal of the cleaners’ labour. The Sun must have spoken with our then lecturer Paul Heritage, because in one of those small sidebar stories they ran later they joked, ‘Mr Heritage didn’t mince his words when he said…’ Even Paul laughed at that, after the cleaners came back to work [I think, though being provided with latex gloves, to remind us of our particular untouchability.]


  3. Seriously, when I researched this article I could find precious little information about Gay Sweatshop, and very few illustrations, so I am delighted to have received this additional information. I was unable to even locate a full list of their repertoire. If anyone has any further information, or can upload scans of press cuttings etc, I am sure readers would be very interested.


  4. Hey! This thread is still alive! 🙂

    I stumbled across Sweatshop history again this summer, this time in my home town, when I was invited to annotate a couple of stops on a radical history walk around Nottingham.

    I discovered Sweatshop had given a performance as part of the CHE conference in Nottingham in 1977: the conference being held at the Albany Hotel, the performance, of ‘As Time Goes By’, at the Victoria Hotel. I worked up notes on a couple of the city’s buildings into a commentary which I gave as the kick-off for The Aqueericon on Shady [LGBTQIA community] Radio, broadcast on NG Digital in December:

    (Video content no longer available. Paul)


  5. Gay Sweatshop came to Belfast at least three times. There was controversy after controversy. The final visit was with ‘Dear Love of Comrades’ about Edward Carpenter and his three boyfriends all called George. Noel Greig played a major role in what was a wonderful play. It ended up being performed in the hall of Rosemary Street 1st Presbyterian Church having been denied its booking by the University Students Union where the previous two productions were.


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