David Levesley: “There’s so much evil happening in the world, yet it’s never been easier to find yourself in a darkroom.”

The playwright sits down with Hadley Stewart to discuss his latest play Too Much Pills And Liquor, which is set to hold the mirror up to the capital’s queer male community.

David Levesley has done therapy. “I’ve already stared into the void and had the beast stare back at me,” he tells me. Yet while writing his latest play Too Much Pills And Liquor, he found himself with a mirror being held up to him. He soon realised that the queer male tropes he sought to unpick through his writing, felt a little close to home. Despite the play’s main character and Levesley have had completely different lives, the hypothesis for the character was somebody like Levesley, without the introspection therapy afforded him.

When I ask Levesley how it feels to be on the receiving end, when we sit down for a video call last month, I’m clearly referring to him being on the receiving end of an interview. Nevertheless, he laughs, I laugh and then clarify my question. As a journalist and former editor at British GQ who has sat down with many celebrities, Levesley is no stranger to interviewing. In fact, I spy a photo of Sam Smith from an interview he did with the singer for GQ, hanging on the wall behind him. This time around, the tables are turned and Levesley finds himself in the hot seat. He later admits to having felt a little nervous before joining the call.

Having written plays since his student days at the University of Warwick, a place which he describes as “where you go if you want to get a degree, but you kind of want to feel like you went to drama school”, coupled with a London media career that saw him brushing shoulders with pop stars and TV personalities, it’s perhaps unsurprising that Levesley would write a play about just that. Too Much Pills And Liquor is a one man play starring Dan de la Motte, that tells the story of Sam, who is trying to ‘make it’ in London and goes to work for a pop star called Riley Sibanda, as their Substack editor.

After a successful showing at The Glory in January, this summer the play will open at The Divine for five nights at the end of June. Levesley has described the play as “accountability for gays” and seeks to explore the balance of having fun as a gay man in London, against an erosion of the rights that allow us to have fun in the first place. “It’s hopefully a nuanced take on a particular type of charming and unlikable, white gay man in a metropolitan area, and what happens when the fun is just too good, and the fight is just too hard,” he explains.

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Feeling inspired and angered after watching the musical Cabaret, which is set against the backdrop of a rise in fascism in Germany, Levesley found the show annoying. “To watch a show where their idea of fascism at the end is people wearing quite nice suits, just absolutely infuriated me,” he says. “There’s no more relevant show you can be putting on in the western world at this moment, than a show about how people turn away from fascism and need to have their feet held to the fire.”

In addition to wanting to open an audience’s eyes to the evils of the world today, Levesley also wanted to explore the notion of balance. Having pivoted away from journalism as his main form of work a few years ago, he found himself in somewhat of an identity crisis. Journalism was a “really convenient way of feeling like you’re making change in the world”, as Levesley puts it. Working as a journalist, he felt as though he had found a balance of doing good through journalism, and having fun as a gay man living in London.

“I felt like at that moment in my life, I was running the risk of turning away,” he says, adding that he knows many people who turn away from what’s going on in the world right now. “And I was just thinking about London, and the way that it is to be a particularly white, able bodied gay man in this city at this moment in time. It just feels like there is so much evil happening in the world, yet it has never been easier to find yourself in a darkroom.”

His fascination with queer tropes, particularly stanning celebrities, is something he wanted to pull apart. “Do we even like Nadine Coyle? I’m not sure,” Levesley laughs. The play’s pop star Riley is born out of Levesley’s own experiences with celebrities. He stresses that the character is written from a place of love, yet there are moments in the play that audience members can imagine pop stars behaving in that way in real life. In fact, the character seems so close to reality, that audience members have asked Levesley if Riley is on Spotify. “I made her up, guys!” he says, mockingly rolling his eyes.

Having interviewed many celebrities as a journalist, Levesley turns the notion of the celebrity interview on its head. “As exciting as it is for us to be around talent, it is way more exciting for them to be around a normal person, because they literally never are,” he laughs. “I feel like I got to experience a lot of people in the public eye doing things that I found very charming, but also pretty fucking weird.” And whilst he tells me he is grateful for a career that allowed him to witness some of those weird celebrity moments, the thought at the back of his mind was, “You’re going to end up in a play someday!”

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The genesis of an idea for a play is one thing, getting it on stage and in front of an audience is another. Having graduated from Warwick, Levesley moved to New York, where he undertook a masters in Journalism at Columbia University. The American city is known for both its creatives and harsh financial realities. “I hated the fact that New York is entirely privately funded work and you have almost no state sponsorship of the work that you’re making,” he says of the city’s theatre scene. “It does make you refine the things that you want to create.”

The need for financial backing didn’t escape him as he returned to the UK. Having pivoted away from journalism into playwriting, Levesley’s search for a rehearsal space for his first play Silent Meat taught him a lesson in resourcefulness and relationships. It was 2017 and using his living room for rehearsals wasn’t cutting it. “You could say it’s a privilege to have a living room in the first place,” he caveats. Despite some theatres offering rehearsal space, as Levesley explains, they can be time-sensitive and costly.

It was a message to the owner of The Chateau, a queer bar in Camberwell, south London, that would feel like a small victory. “I was like, ‘I’m rehearsing for a play. I presume that you don’t have anybody in there before, like 7pm. Is it possible that we can rehearse nine to five every day for a week, and we pay for you to have somebody on the bar, like just to survey and make sure we’re not robbing you?’ And he said yes.” Although the space wasn’t available for free, Levesley recalls that he negotiated a deal that would see him getting a week’s worth of rehearsal space for a day’s worth of rehearsal space fees elsewhere in London.

“If nightlife wants to support the arts, the nightlife can support the arts,” he says. “You have to lean into the communities you know and the resources that you need. It’s never going to take off all the sacrifices that you’re going to have to make, but it can be a huge help.” These practicalities can also be a grounding experience for creativity. “To have that as a constant lens to look through the work that you’re making also benefits my creative practice,” he explains. Too Much Pills And Liquor is a one man show, which gives Levesley the scope to pay the team working on the play “a decent wage”, compared to if the play had multiple actors. He acknowledges that there needs to be a fundamental change in the way theatre is financed, adding that ongoing funding cuts for the arts fill him with sadness.

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Alongside the arts struggling financially, Levesley acknowledges the closure of LGBTQ+ venues across many cities, with London being no exception. The likes of The Glory, where Too Much Pills And Liquor showed in January, has since closed down. “I seem to be a bit of a curse,” he says when it comes to venues who have shown his work, joking that The Divine will be his next victim. “What I’m doing is making something that is the most economically viable piece of theatre, to tell something that I think is important and needs to be shared artistically.”

The play certainly hits the nail on the head with many issues impacting not only queer men, but arguably the wider LGBTQ+ community. I ask Levesley how he feels about how the audience might react to having a mirror held up to them and the community. He begins by telling me that when he was younger and closetted, he didn’t like Russell T. Davies’ work. “Enough of this agenda,” he would say. “Why are you shoving this down my throat?”

Fast-forward to Levesley interviewing the screenwriter for British GQ about It’s A Sin, and Levesley told him that there were TV shows that Davies had written that Levesley didn’t watch growing up. Levesley equated this to tall poppy syndrome and internalised homophobia, and asked Davies if he’d experienced anything similar. “He was saying that he wrote one of the characters in Queer as Folk based off one of his best friends, and he knew it was a good representation,” recalls Levesley. “When the friend watched the episode, the friend was like, ‘Who’s that based off?’ As though it couldn’t possibly be someone they knew.’”

The fear of how a predominantly queer male audience may react to his play came about when Too Much Pills And Liquor first took to the stage. “I am aware that gay men are the worst supporters of work about gayness,” he says. “There’s a reason Looking died after two seasons, even though it was one of the best pieces of TV out there. We are bad at having the mirror held up to us, which is ironic for such a vein group of people.” That being said, Levesley felt that the audience reaction was overall positive. He tells me people were laughing at the club names and the character’s behaviour. The mirror, it seems, is being received with humour and reflection in equal measure.

As for the queer men in the audience this summer, finding themselves relating to the play’s main characters? “I think he’s unpleasant enough, but charming enough, that to be associated with that character is still quite satisfying.”

Tickets are selling fast for Too Much Pills And Liquor, which will show at The Divine from 24th June to 1st July.

About Hadley Stewart

Hadley Stewart is Features Editor at Vada Magazine.