Reviewer's rating

For two more nights, you can catch Brook Tate performing Birthmarked at The Bristol Old Vic. Regardless of what you have planned, cancel it, then storm down and get a ticket. 

I first saw this show just under a year ago at Theatre on the Downs, where it felt as though Tate had brought armfuls of art – songs, paintings, puppets, and dancing, and let them fly into the room to tell his story. It was completely compelling and perfectly clear that this show was destined for more. Watching him hold the Bristol Old Vic in the palm of his hand this week, it still felt as though I was seeing just a stage in his journey. Birthmarked is the story of growing up as a Jehovah’s witness, of the evolving realisation that as a young gay man it is not a community he can stay in, and of his journey into the world outside. In the face of a religion that cannot withstand the full breadth of the human experience, Birthmarked soars out from pain. With a stage full of colour, humour, and friendship, it dismantles divisions and fights for a life lived fully and honestly, one with space for all those you meet on the way. 

Hopefully, by now you’ve leapt to the website and bought a ticket. Phew. A few thoughts, then, on the show itself. I remember trying to describe it to a friend after the first time I saw it – “it’s like a gig, so there’s musicians on stage and a massive puppet, and most of it takes place underwater”. So if you can just imagine that, then add Tate at the centre of it. As a performer, he tells his story simply. He sometimes stumbles over his words, catching himself, laughing at himself, and throwing off any conventional barriers between him and those watching. He’s ridiculously charming and could get you to do basically anything. Wave your arms in the air as a fish would? Sure. Sing out with tears in your eyes to let a long-lost, much loved family member know you still think of them, that you still hope to find them? Absolutely, no problem. Alongside Gale the whale (voiced by Eva Redman who is so funny) he strips back and then rebuilds, and you see it happen before your eyes. 

It is a truly beautiful show, both to look at and to experience. Tate is an artist in full flight, so the production is visual and it is physical, and it feels like it encompasses both body and soul. There is a sense that you can live to the full reaches of your existence, but that this isn’t something that requires withdrawal. Despite the story following the journey of someone leaving a community, what has stayed with me is the spirit of generosity and connection. He takes as many people as he can with him, and props the door open to those he has had to leave behind. Towards the end of the show, he dances for his grandmother, a woman who spent her life knocking on doors. A perfect example of what Birthmarked does best, he gathers her story up with him as he propels into the future, with a boundless capacity for seeing beyond the walls of religion to the people within. Really really, and I can’t stress this enough, go and see it while you can.