It’s more than five years since the UK government committed to banning conversion therapy, yet despite an update to their White Paper in 2021, the harmful practice remains startlingly prolific. Playing in the final week of VAULT Festival, Rory Thomas-Howes’ Con-Version explores the toll conversion therapy can take on one suburban family.
This ordinary household are preparing for the return of Son, who has been absent for more than a year while studying at university, or so we are led to believe, and this is a play where seeing isn’t necessarily believing. Telegraph reading Father (Timothy Harker) and Sister (Molly Rolfe) are treading on eggshells around Mother, who seems to have the whole family under her own narrow-minded spell.
Son arrives and the tension is palpable, but when Mother isn’t happy she chooses to spin her own narrative; suddenly there’s Fiancée (Phoebe Ellabani) and the ‘perfect’ family are ready to eat dinner. But nothing is as it seems, the only real link to reality Son has is Neighbour’s Boy, with a powerful performance from Alex Britt, who provides flashes of memory that jolts Son from Mother’s fantasy world.
Thomas-Howes’ really plays with the idea of genre here, replaying the scenes in different guises, from a silent movie to Shakespearian drama. On one hand it highlights the extraordinary efforts a parent could make to shape the lives of their children, for better or worse. And on the other, it offers a glimpse into the mental toll conversion therapy has on the recipient.
It’s in these moments that Elan Butler is captivating as Son, changing personas in a heart-beat while displaying the pain and anguish he’s going through in a visceral and commanding performance. The dynamic between Son and Mother is compelling, Ruth Redman treads a fine line between villainy and maternal protector, at one point scolding the audience for judging her.
Where Con-Version is particularly strong is in the way it demonstrates how easily the narrative can be controlled by others, of course the actions of Mother are front and foremost here, but there are more subtle hints, such as Father being more tolerant than his choice of newspaper would initially suggest.
It’s a complex story, and one that frequently takes its audience by surprise, but these transitions between differing realities are effectively portrayed through ambitious lighting and sound design from Ben Garcia and Matteo Depares. This staging, and genius direction from Sam Edmunds, succeeds in creating a hauntingly claustrophobic experience that allows the audience to get a real sense of the issues at the heart of the story.
Con-Version conveys a hugely powerful message with innovative style and structure, Rory Thomas-Howes’ daring script manages to almost fool the audience into thinking they’re watching something else entirely, before revealing the hidden trauma that is at the centre of its subject.
VAULT Festival 2023 runs Tuesday 24th January to Sunday 19th March, full listings and ticket information can be found here.