‘Con-version’ at VAULT Festival review – Queer conversion therapy experience marred by magic realism

Please note: This review – like the production itself – discusses the topics of homophobia and queer conversion therapy. Please take care when reading and click off this article if these subjects are triggering to you.


It’s hard to showcase the cruel reality of queer conversion therapy when your story focusses far too much on illusions and fantasy. In Rory Thomas-Howes’ convoluted Con-Version, the return of a traumatised Son (Elan Butler) to his family home instead gives way to a bizarre tale of a magical mother’s fight to maintain a sanitised household run on toxic positivity.

This stands in stark contrast to the play’s opening, where Mother (Ruth Redman) brings a crying baby into a church, hymns are sung and the tables behind her are rearranged into the cross. References – and the eventual inclusion – of the church pastor (Alex Britt, who also plays the Neighbour’s Boy who previously had a relationship with Son) also indicate we’re dealing with the harmful and dangerous practice of queer conversion therapy in religious settings.

Butler’s performance as Son is fragile, and certainly demonstrates a repressed individual on the brink of a devastating breakdown. His delivery is stiff and direct, as one would expect when an institution has attempted to strip them of a core part of their identity, and when he does snap, the outcome is explosive – that is, until Mother resets the narrative and we’re back at the dinner table again.

That’ll be the ‘versions’ in Con-version – the ability of Mother to wipe the slate clean if any undesirable emotion (such as hate, a word she doesn’t allow in the house) ever comes to the fore. At one point, we see multiple stagings of Mother bringing some food to the table, as a few culminate in an outburst from Son – each one accompanied with a jarring whooshing sound. Redman plays Mother with a chilling calmness which hides a lot more beneath the surface, and ropes in Son’s Fiancée (Phoebe Ellabani) into the twisted utopia of the house. Any dissent from family members – even over Father (played with banality and an airy demeanour from Timothy Harker) reading The Telegraph – has to be controlled and silenced.

Oddly multiversal, it would have been far more interesting if it revolved around Mother’s character as a magical and manipulative matriarch, and how other family members tire of her constant contortions to find the perfect version of reality. We could have seen each character lose a grip on what’s real and what’s an original thought, rather than just Son, who’s continually jumping between rekindling and repressing his sexuality. We see a hint of this with Sister (Molly Rolfe) at the end of the play, the same conclusion which leaves Son’s ‘recovery’ from conversion therapy open-ended.

If Con-version was a story of a mother’s gaslighting and fantasies, then it could well have been a powerful psychological thriller, but in its name alone, it suggests an exploration of conversion therapy which actually ends up losing its purpose and meaning amongst the multiverse.

Con-version is now playing at VAULT Festival until 19 March.

Production Images: Paper Mug Theatre.

Disclaimer: I was invited to watch ‘Con-version’ for free in exchange for a review as a member of the press. I did not receive payment for this article and all opinions stated above are honest and my own.

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