Peacock review: a glittering musical comedy

Beneath the stunning set of crystals which illuminated the stage of the Old Fire Station, Peacock delivered a night of camp humour, heartfelt reflection, and unabashed queerness which its audience is unlikely to forget. Having already performed to crowds in Newport, Stroud, Bristol, and Bath, this touring production had clearly undergone many steps in its development to reach the level of entertainment value on offer to the Oxford audience.

Written by Douglas Murdoch and directed by Lex Kaby, the co-founders (alongside creative producer Holly Jeffries) of Greedy Pig Theatre Company, Peacock is a heartwarming story of self-discovery and the freedom it provides. The music-infused play follows Seamus (Ben Armitage), a young bisexual man who expands his horizons by experimenting with makeup and falling in love with drag queen and noncommittal clairvoyant Tyrell (Kofi Dennis). With the help of the passionate Violet (Alexandra Wollacott) and customer-turned-colleague Noah (Toby Mitchell), the two lovers explore the trials and tribulations of a new relationship and what it means to live as your true self.

According to Murdoch the inspiration for Peacock “came from a very real place for me. Over lockdown, I started experimenting with makeup and got to a place where I felt quite comfortable with it. However, then when lockdown ended and I was faced with stepping out of the house wearing makeup, I was suddenly confronted by this uncomfortable and complex scramble of feelings.” In the play Seamus, inspired by Tyrell’s confidence in drag, is drawn to makeup but is paralysed by fear when he wears it in public for the first time.

The development of Peacock picked up steam in early 2022 when Greedy Pig held workshops to “establish what makeup and masculinity meant to men in the South West”. The summer saw the company undertake a script Research & Development (R&D) process in which the actors and producers experimented with improvisation and devising. One stage of the process involved going out into the streets of Bath and speaking to the public about their thoughts and experiences regarding men wearing makeup. All of this factored into what would eventually become Murdoch’s final script. Greedy Pig commented that “it is interesting to look back on the R&D show now with a full complete script, as some elements are so different, and some scenes are near-identical to what was created in the R&D room”.

The music in Peacock forms an essential part of the production, whether it’s a drag lip sync number to a Mis-Teeq song or an apology delivered as a Lizzo cover. The show ends with all four characters performing an energetic and enthralling routine to the tune of Little Mix’s “Power”. It’s the realisation of the previous hour of Seamus’ slow build-up in confidence. Despite being spooked earlier at Tyrell’s drag performance, the end of the play sees a Seamus proud to provide impromptu backup to his boyfriend alongside Violet and Noah.

All four actors bring something unique to the table that makes Peacock magical. Armitage perfectly conveys the awkwardness and frustration of Seamus as he reckons with his lack of confidence. Dennis’ physicality as Tyrell both in and out of drag provides an undeniable confidence to the character. Wollacott and Mitchell provide many of the comedic high points of the show with two contrasting approaches. While Wollacott as Violet delivers many hilarious lines trying to keep her friends entertained, it’s Mitchell’s lack of over-the-top dialogue that makes his performance as Noah shine. His monosyllabic responses to the other three’s campy energy drew many laughs from the audience. A highlight of the show humour-wise was seeing Seamus and Noah decide to get over their inhibition and put eyeshadow on each other’s eyes, both humming to distract themselves from their fear. The scene ends with the two of them screaming at each other while daintily dabbing makeup onto their faces.

Though the show has a lighthearted core, it isn’t afraid to explore serious issues relating to mental health and anxiety. Tyrell is afraid of what his brother will think when he is told he will be attending one of his performances and puts up a front of masculinity whenever he speaks to him. Seamus gets irritated in a phone conversation with his mother after she seems to be unable to understand his bisexuality. Violet, after being elected to the parish council, worries that the other much older members will underestimate her and push her around. In easily Peacock’s most powerful moment, Noah talks candidly about how men like him don’t get asked about their mental health often and how many men struggle with communicating their worries for fear of seeming weak. Greedy Pig worked with the men’s mental health charity HUMEN to ensure their depiction of this important issue was authentic.

Peacock was a delight to watch with a script that was both hilarious and heartwarming and a cast that was unafraid to give their all to the performance. The set design was also strong and it was remarkable how the landscape of the stage could shift with a few quick changes of props and backdrops. The raucous applause the show received at its conclusion is testament to the heart, soul, and wit that went into this production.