Play recreates magic of Edinburgh’s Lavender Menace

James Ley's play brings the bookshop to life.
James Ley's play brings the bookshop to life.
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It blazed a trail for lovers of LGBT fact and fiction in the 80s.

Now the legend of Edinburgh’s Lavender Menace bookshop will be brought to life in a new stage production.

Opening near the top of Leith Walk in 1982, the shop was a development of earlier initiatives around both radical and lesbian, gay and feminist bookselling and would fast become the beating heart of the city’s LGBT+ community.

For Edinburgh playwright James Ley, 40, Creative Scotland funding gave him the opportunity to tell the true-life story of the institution – a haven for a community that until 1980 was suppressed under the Sexual Offences Act, ruling homosexuality a crime.

Starring Matthew McVarish and Pierce Reid, Love Song to Lavender Menace tells the story of the huge role the bookshop played in Scotland’s LGBT liberation.

Founder Bob Orr teamed up with business partner Sigrid Neilson to open the shop, which continued to serve Edinburgh’s LGBT community for more than a decade.

The groundbreaking bookshop migrated to Dundas Street, changing its name to West and Wilde where it remained until the 90s.

The unique space offered an alternative to the gay pubbing and clubbing scene which Mr Ley said provided people somewhere to go that was less of a statement.

“I spoke to old employees and many former customers and the same story kept 
coming up,” he said. “For many this was the first gay place they’d been to in Scotland and many had to pluck up the courage to go in for the first time, with a few aborted attempts.

“That idea clicked with people who shared the same experience of scoping out the shop and deciding to finally go in.”

The play is set on the eve of the shop’s fifth birthday where leads Lewis (Reid) and Glen, (McVarish) play shop assistants beginning to look back at the history of the shop, its importance and how things have changed since it first opened.

“I want to take the audience back to the atmosphere of this intriguing and magical bookshop that was so important to the LGBT community and to the Edinburgh community as a whole for more than a decade,” he said.

“I’m fascinated that there was a gay club on Princes Street that was in-your-face, provocative and counter-cultural, as I question whether that could exist now in a more corporate, buttoned-up city.”

To reflect the importance of the shop to visitors from all over Scotland, a successful Kickstarter campaign raised £4000 to take the play on a tour around the country. Mr Ley said: “The response was amazing and I would like to thank everybody who contributed. People came from all over to Edinburgh to stock up on books and use the communal noticeboard, an integral part of building the LGBT links across the country, so we were very keen to tour the show.”

Love Song to Lavender Menace will run from October 12-21 at the Lyceum.