Above: Matt Oldaker in the role of Santi. Featured image: Robbie Wardhaugh as Kris. Photo credit: Matthew Miceli Photography

Discovery, learning, sharing and sanctuary are themes which bounce joyously up to us from the Kings Cross Theatre stage during Laurent Auclair’s new play, French Letters and Leather Cleaner.

The well-cast ensemble bring the space to buoyant life as we watch a traditional Oxford St adult store, started in the 1980s/90s, teeter on the brink of closure or redevelopment.

On one night in ‘French Letters’, an adult shop, complete with its ‘Tunnel of Love’ backroom, we find the owner Robbie, (played with easy, experienced charm by Dennis Clements), a survivor of the global AIDS epidemic and passionate shopowner concerned over the shop’s future.

Twenty-first century style co-worker Kris is also on shift (the promising, expressive Robbie Wardhaugh), who once sought refuge from the world and unemployment by working at this shop. Kris is eager to share their ideas of how to make ‘French Letters’ competitive as a modern retailer.

Above: Dennis Clements in the role of shop owner, Robbie.Photo credit: Matthew Miceli Photography

A lot of humour, old-Oxford St elegance and amazing timing comes packaged in the formidable performance from Matt Oldaker in the role of Santi the drag performer. Santi takes over the stage with a svelte frisson, as a font of wisdom and giver of scathing reality checks.

Matt Oldaker’s commanding theatrical delivery of any lines, hilarious reveal of Santi’s  plethora of new reality TV show ideas draw the audience to a special world immediately.

Well-paced descriptive flashbacks to aspects of queer history of the now changed Oxford St colour Auclair’s story in sturdy, classic rainbows. The gorgeous exchanges between Santi and all shop staff  is bursting with integrity and touching camaraderie from the performers.

This risque world, in the mould of many twentieth century sex service centres uses nicely rendered lighting, sound and coverage of the shop floor to convey familiarity, friendship, fabulousness and a few sharp glitter bombs of grief.

Into this fragile and growingly outdated secret snow dome of Oxford St fun enters the plays villains and carefully welcomed outsiders. The  straight-but-curious inner west couple Charmaine (played with impressive smiling-assassin-ease then a final warm empathy by Kayla-Rose De Sousa) and her boyfriend needing experimentation, Andy (bursting with uh-huh, omg-look-at-him surpise packet blokieness via Marty Quinn’s convincing portrayal).

Above: Sex shop ‘customers’ Kayla-Rose De Sousa as Charmine with boyfriend Andy, played by Marty Quinn. Photo credit: Matthew Miceli Photography

This is a well constructed play, with history lessons about queer lifestyle, Sydney’s iconic street and the state  of queer life now. This sitcom-fable-farce demonstrates the need for tolerance, sanctuary, a fair go for all on the human spectrum and the need for laughter and pleasure along the way.

As this tale’s delicate threads are gently woven together at this sensitive, celebratory WorldPride time, we see it coloured by spot-on characterisations. There are more than a rainbow’s bandwidth of sentiment, personality hues and braveries clearly outlined here. A real treat to witness are the many visual gags and tributes to the niche scene of adult stores, as well as the not-so-niche needs of contrasting characters from opposing corners of life.

We watch with dread wondering, will ‘French Letters’ survive as a collaborative safe space of compassionate flexibility, or is it destined to be found collapsed in a corner of a modern world’s loveless tunnel of conventional progress?

Get to this play, grown from Fruit Box Theatre’s abundant RIPE Development Program to find out. Take a deep huff of the finely chiselled personal pantomimes on show. The  earnest, relevant and poignant performances will make your head spin. The quality of the dialogue exchanges, however short, plus the clever unravelling of this drama will leave you with a  safe, warm-fuzzy sense of hope and fairness for all.

French Letters and Leather Cleaner plays at Kings Cross Theatre until Fri 24 Feb.

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