by Steve Desroches
Keep calm and carry on.
In 1939 the British government printed millions of posters with that phrase to prepare the citizenry for the horrors to follow at the start of World War II. And indeed that reminder would come in useful as the Nazis unleashed the Blitz on Great Britain, an almost constant bombardment that lasted nearly nine months, leaving the country’s cities in near ruin. In actuality, very few of the posters actually were used, and the public service announcement didn’t resurface until an original poster was discovered in a used bookshop in far northern England in 2000. Since then it’s become a popular catchphrase reminding the world about the British steely resolve and their ability to keep it together under the most extreme of circumstances.
Of course, these days it seems things in the United Kingdom are anything but calm, or even united, as they now have their own Trump in Prime Minister Boris Johnson as they wander through the impossible tricky thicket of Brexit. Indeed it appears that stiff upper lip is beginning to quiver. One can only hold it together for so long when burying your feelings. Just ask Lady Mary on Downton Abbey. Or you can take in Fiona Goodwin’s solo show this weekend as she brings A Very British Lesbian for her Provincetown debut.
Americans do seem obsessed with our former colonial rulers. And since the Revolution went our way, we frequently cozy up to their comedy, in particular. Be it Benny Hill or Monty Python, Catherine Tate or Little Britain, Americans can’t get enough. With their dry humor and savage wit, and those irresistible accents, the British can make near anything funny, including the tragic and sad. It’s something Goodwin particularly appreciates as the comedic actress and stand-up comic laughs, saying no one would listen to her story if she didn’t make it funny, otherwise it would just be a miserable tale of a woman who hated herself for far too long, wasting time unable to come out, but still managing to remember tea time. But what exactly makes a very British lesbian?
“Well, in a general sense, this particular lesbian,” says Goodwin. “It’s very British to keep your feelings to yourself, to keep a stiff upper lip, to not really express much of anything. That’s so very British. It’s also how I stayed in the closet for so long.”
Perhaps the most British thing about the show is Goodwin’s ability to make what is a sad story so funny. She credits her parents, and indeed the English people, for their gallows humor. As Mary Poppins says, a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down. And for Goodwin, who is also a practicing psychotherapist in Los Angeles (you didn’t see that coming, did you?), humor is one of the most powerful means of communication there is. It’s helped her make sense of her own story that includes religious fanaticism, an exorcism to rid her of homosexual demons, missionary work in the abject poverty of Honduras, the isolation of failed relationships with unavailable women, 30 years of hiding in the closet, and somehow ending up as a behavioral specialist on the reality show Britain’s Worst Teenager.
Goodwin’s story is ultimately a triumphant one, as she pulled herself out of the well of loneliness to a place of self-acceptance and happiness. This coming-out story from across the pond paints a vivid picture of the cultural climate for LGBT people in the United Kingdom. Here in the United States there can be a distorted image of increased tolerance in Europe for LGBT people. But that was not the case at all, particularly under the homophobic Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who in 1988 promoted and shepherded legislation into law that forbade the “promotion of homosexuality,” a tactic used most recently by Russian President Vladimir Putin. Those days were anything but a laughing matter for LGBT people in the United Kingdom.
“I think it has become more liberal, but it wasn’t when I was young,” says Goodwin. “Plus, I lived in the country. I didn’t live in a big city. As they say, I was the only gay in the village. That’s not true actually. There was a lesbian couple that lived down the street, but I’d cross to avoid them. I was terrified of them.”
This marks not only Goodwin’s Provincetown debut, but also the East Coast premiere of A Very British Lesbian after performances earlier this year in Santa Monica, California, and in Seattle. This past summer Goodwin brought the show to the famed Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland, where it received rave reviews. It was there that she began to hear about Provincetown. Fellow performers and audience members from all over the world told her coming to Provincetown was an absolute must. As a lesbian who didn’t attend her first Gay Pride parade until she was 50, she’s especially keen to visit Provincetown, and doubly excited to do so during Women’s Week. Having done the show both in the UK and the USA she’s confident in its universal appeal, even if the audiences in each country are quite different.
“I think that British audiences are more ‘make me laugh, damn you,’” says Goodwin. “Here the audience is much more with you. Americans are more open. The British are more critical, maybe cynical. And Americans are very kind to the British. If you have a British accent you can get away with murder!”
Fiona Goodwin presents A Very British Lesbian at the Pilgrim House, 336 Commercial St., Thursday, October 17 at 4:30 p.m., Friday, October 18 at 5:30 p.m., and Sunday, October 19 at 1:30 p.m. Tickets ($25) are available at the box office and online at pilgrimhouseptown.com.