Finley Letchford-Dobbs is one of four Manchester based queer theatre makers supported by Hope Mill Theatre via development grants and mentoring who showcased work as part of the TurnOn Fest programme, the annual LGBTQIA+ festival in partnership with Superbia, Manchester Pride’s year round programme of arts and culture.
Last night, I had the absolute privilege to watch ‘Voyage’ in which Finley Letchford-Dobbs regains control of his journey as a trans person through dramatised contemporary dance, music and video – a bold reclamation of power in a world that desperately tries to silence him. It is not often that a pure nugget of brilliance comes along – but that is what this 30 minute performance offered to those lucky enough to catch it.
The whole performance wasn’t just brilliant, but was incredibly clever. The use of a relevant and resonant soundtrack, edited by Greg Thorpe, and a precise combination of Tom Sutcliffe’s lighting with Letchford-Dobbs use of stage space worked perfectly to enable the audience to identify with the stages of the trans voyage Letchford-Dobbs has been navigating.
Finlay Letchford-Dobbs is definitely a talent to watch out for, not only responsible for all choreography and performance in this excellent show, but also for the video projected at the back of an otherwise empty stage, providing pertinent information throughout to provide context to the stages of this voyage of transition from female to male identity.
Starting with video images of a little girl, with an obvious love of dance and performance from an early age, this takes centre stage with Letchford-Dobbs sitting on the dark stage, his back to the audience, watching presumably the time before his voyage commenced. The soundtrack choice of T Rex’s Cosmic Dancer is perfect, including lyrics ‘I was dancing when I was 8’. The video morphs to a Disney Peter Pan film, and Letchford-Dobbs commences his performance, wearing nothing but jeans and a white shirt, which is open, showing us the breast binding which is ever present until later stages of his voyage.
That voyage takes us through the stormy sea of this trans journey, with soundtracks from Christine and the Queens, and Mika, coming to terms with his future identity, with a video backdrop of different Transgender and Intersex flags, with the LGBTQQIAAP logo displayed prominently. The dance routine is clever, with some movements that seem very female, morphing into others that are somehow more masculine – illustrating how one being can be both female and male. This is followed with video background of newspaper articles about trans people – all of them negative, e.g. ‘You’ll have to hide away’, ‘are you a girl or a boy’, ‘but you look like a girl’.
The use of four empty chairs on the stage, with a clock spinning through its hours, portrays the frustrations of a trans person having to explain to doctors, surgeons or other medical practitioners why they want to have surgery and make their transition, in this case from female to male. As Letchford-Dobbs sits as each chair, you see him having the same conversation over and over again, becoming more frustrated and afraid he will never receive the ‘permission’ he needs for access to hormones and surgery.
Letchford-Dobbs has the ability to manipulate his audience’s emotions at every stage of this clever production. Having felt his anguish over being ‘allowed’ to begin his medical transformation, we then feel his elation when this is granted. The removal of the bindings is clever – with ropes in the colours of the transgender flag ripped off, followed by the breast bindings which have been constant until this point. His smile and dance of pure joy is infectious.
The last part of the performance is superb. If you came to this part without having participated in the voyage, you would conclude this is the male soloist of a ballet troupe with incredible core strength and talent. The graceful performance shows nothing of the brutal voyage he has been on to get to this conclusion.
In the end credits, Letchford-Dobbs says: ‘I’d like to thank Greg Thorpe for his continuing mentoring and support. Also, everyone at the Hope Mill Theatre and the producers of the TurnOn Fest for granting me this opportunity, seeing the potential in me and my work, supporting me throughout the process and continually giving trans artists a platform.’
Hope Mill is right to identify potential in Letchford-Dobbs, and someone I recommend putting on your ‘one to watch’ list if this fantastic production is any example of his work to come.
Voyage was performed and streamed online on 25 March as part of Hope Mill Theatre‘s Turn on Fest 2021.