Interview: Rory Thomas-Howes on Con-Version, ‘We want people to understand the pain of the practice’

Shortlisted for the VAULT Five and Charlie Hartill Award, Paper Mug Theatre are bringing Con-Version, a genre-defying exploration of conversion therapy and its effects on an ordinary British family to this year’s VAULT Festival. The play, by queer writer Rory Thomas-Howes, stars Ruth Redman, Elan Butler, Timothy Harker, Molly Rolfe, Phoebe Ellabani and Alex Britt with direction by Sam Edmunds.

Ahead of opening at the festival, we caught up with Thomas-Howes, who also produces the piece, to find out more about this story of truth, love and our personal prisons.

Q&A with Rory Thomas-Howes

What can you tell us about Con-Version?

Con-Version is (as far as I’m aware) the first play examining conversion therapy in the UK. Shortlisted for The Pleasance Theatre’s Charlie Hartill Award, and the VAULT Five, Con-Version is a genre-bending, reality-shattering piece about Son, returning home after a year of conversion therapy, who finds himself unable to differentiate between reality and the stories he’s created for himself. As Mother and Father try desperately to keep him on the straight and narrow, Sister is plotting her own escape. A mysterious woman has arrived with Son, threatening the whole operation. And over the garden fence, the Neighbour’s Boy is waiting, hoping to pick up where he and Son left off.

Ultimately, it’s a show about love, identity and our own personal prisons – it’s tragic, heart-breaking, at points hilarious and most of all, hopeful.

What was the original inspiration for the show?

Conversion therapy has been on the docket at Parliament for over 5 years. Theresa May pledged to ban it – we’ve now been through four Prime Ministers, and no progress has been made. In fact, there’s leaked reports showing that the Tories repeatedly tried to bury the bill. Even this week, Kate Forbes, potentially the next First Minister of Scotland, said that people should be allowed the ‘choice’ of conversion therapy if they want. No one chooses it. It’s a result of societal pressure and fuels self-loathing. The lack of education around the practice is woeful, and Con-Version aims to change that. This play was developed around interviews with survivors, hewing close to the truthful experience while placing it in a sci-fi, fantastical context.

What is it like bringing the show to VAULT Festival?

At times, very stressful – it’s an enormous show with a great deal of tech and special effects, so it was a beast to mount! But ultimately the team have been fantastic and very accommodating – Con-Version was shortlisted for the VAULT Five in 2021, so they’ve shown a huge amount of belief in us to bring our (insane) vision to life.

How do you think audiences will react?

Surprise. Laughter. Hopefully tears. They’ll likely be slightly confused at times, and that’s what we want – the play tears apart reality in its depiction of conversion therapy, and we want the audience to feel that same sense of confusion that those undergoing conversion therapy experience. We want people to understand the pain of the practice, and how ineffective it is.

How would you describe the show to someone considering buying a ticket?

Breath-taking. Hopeful. Unique.