A LIFE’S JOURNEY: Noel Tovey’s And then I found me

Verity La Through the Looking Glass: Reviews

Review by Brenda Saunders
Edited by Robyn Cadwallader

And then I found me is the story of a creative and talented artist fulfilling his dream. Noel Tovey traces the challenges, mishaps, dangers and tragedies of his life and loves in the theatre during the swinging sixties, and his travels overseas until his return to Australia aged seventy-three.

Noel Tovey (who as a child went by his father’s surname, Morton) was born in 1934, the third of five children, at a time when the hardships of the Great Depression caused widespread unemployment in Melbourne. We read of the extreme poverty and neglect Noel and his siblings experienced at the hands of their alcoholic parents. His father, Frederick J Morton, was generally unemployed and worked the streets as a busker.

Noel’s early years were previously detailed in his acclaimed first autobiography, Little Black Bastard (Hachette Australia, 2005), which was later developed into a successful one-man theatre performance. His older sister, Mag, is the only family member to prominently feature in this new account of his later life — Noel describes how Mag watched out for him when they were taken into foster care, suffering from neglect.

Noel traces his own musical abilities back to his fraternal grandfather and uncle who were musicians of African descent. They formed a duo called the Royal Bohee Bros which toured to England and played for King Edward VII. Sadly, he found his mother’s story more difficult to trace because of the dislocation experienced by Aboriginal people as a consequence of the Stolen Generations.

Noel recounts how one evening a work colleague took him to see a performance of Les Sylphides. It was a pivotal moment for him as it was then that he realised he wanted to dance, and enrolled in The National Ballet School — and later — the Boravansky School. He writes of this time: ‘Life was exciting…and I was in love with a boy in my ballet class’.

Yet it was only after he reverted to his legal birth name — his mother’s surname, Tovey — that Noel found he could leave his old life behind and escape the bad associations of his past. As Noel Morton he was subject to racist and homophobic slurs, and labelled ‘Abo’ and ‘homosexual’ by fellow artists: but a new name meant a new life for Noel Christian Tovey. From 1952 he spent his free time studying singing and ballet, and gave his first professional performance in the musical Paint your Wagon at Her Majesty’s Theatre in Melbourne in 1954.

Noel’s dream, however, was to perform in the London theatre. After gaining experience in musicals and plays in Australia, he left for England in September 1960. With him was his friend and bride, Barbara. Both she and Noel shared a desire to escape and leave their old life behind, but neither had considered Noel’s sexuality. After the birth of their daughter, Felicity, the couple separated and Barbara returned to Melbourne. With stark honesty, Noel explores the reasons for the failure of his first marriage:

I had learned my lesson. Friendship was not the basis for a marriage, particularly if the husband is homosexual. I really tried to make it work but by repressing my natural desires and emotions I had contributed to the environment which enabled Barb to fall in love with someone else. (70-71)

Later, Tovey describes his many attempts to form a relationship with his estranged daughter, who was living back in Australia with her mother and stepfather, but tragically, Felicity died in 2005.

In Noel’s account of the following years, the reader is led on a wild ride through years of momentous opportunity and travel. He shares stories of exciting chance encounters and of the many friendships he formed among the close network of theatre people. These lively years in London are well documented by Tovey, who recounts incidents and events in intricate detail. At times though there seems to be too much information, and the speed of narrative and shift of focus can feel overwhelming and chaotic. At these points it was necessary to read back to confirm particulars of time and place; some date references would have been helpful along the way.

However this style of writing also serves to reinforce the moveable feast of a life dedicated to the stage. After years  building a repertoire in musicals, ballet, drama and television, Noel’s big break came when he was asked to choreograph  Sandy Wilson’s musical The Boy Friend in the West End, which was reviewed to great acclaim. The show toured the UK and South Africa, and in 1971 Noel returned home to tour the show in Australia. It was this visit to South Africa during the first days of apartheid that challenged Noel to confront racism up close. He visited African townships and was shocked at the discrimination and degradation of the black majority:

In 1968, the reality of who I was came to fruition the night I saw on television that Martin Luther King had been assassinated…his speech played a significant role in my eventual coming to terms with my own black inheritance and understanding the suffering my ancestors had endured…I felt guilty and ashamed because I had denied my Aboriginality for so many years. (106-7)

Another breakthrough for Noel occured during his visit to New York, where he went to study innovations in dance and became aware of ‘gay power’, joining in demonstrations with the Gay Liberation Movement. ‘Gay power’ became popular in the UK too, and back in London he was asked to choreograph and develop the new musical Oh! Calcutta, a staging of eroticism and sex. Tovey describes the development of the work in detail: the rehearsals, the personal challenges and explorations, and the trust necessary for each member of the cast to present the production. He regarded it as a statement of ‘gay power’.

On the morning after the opening night, The Sun described the musical as ‘the most remarkable first night in British theatre…a turning point battle in the war of the puritans and the permissives’ (135). After a long run in London the show went to Paris.

This was a very successful period for Tovey, but after Oh! Calcutta he was looking for something new. In 1971, despite his earlier recognition that his sexuality meant friendship was not a strong enough basis for marriage, Noel became engaged to Trish, a fellow artist and friend. Yet it wasn’t until Noel met Dave, a Yorkshire accountant, while in London for a job interview, that he realised he had met the love of his life. Tovey and Trish later separated as friends.

Noel and Dave went on to establish L’Odeon, a successful decorative arts gallery in London. Tovey recounts his long-term relationship with Dave, and how he cared for him during his tragic illness and death. We are given personal insights into the early years of the AIDS epidemic in London, the fear and superstitions that abounded in the 80s, and the tragic consequences for the gay community.

This biography covers the years from 1957 to 1991. The personal photographs of the artist in costume, as well as the inclusion of show programs, embellish Tovey’s story and centre him in the life of British theatre during this time. After returning to live in Melbourne in 1991, Tovey went back to Britain to research And then I found me with the help of a 2007 Literature Board Grant from the Australia Council. The Epilogue tells of him coming to terms with his life and heritage while he explores material for the book. As he states: ‘Finally, after seventy three years, on a hot afternoon in a church in London, I found me’ (238).

And then I found me is a must-read for anyone interested in the London theatre during this exciting period. It is also a revealing account of the dedication necessary to succeed in the competitive world of the arts. In recounting his personal life, Noel Tovey writes with frank honesty of the dramas and mistakes he made as he struggled to come to terms with his race and sexuality. We see a strong determination to survive despite setbacks and tragedies, a strength formed despite — or perhaps forged in — the deprivation suffered in his early years. As we share Noel’s journey we can only marvel at the strong sense of optimism and self belief that rise from these pages.

 

And Then I Found Me
Noel Tovey
Magabala Books, 2017
242 pages $33.00

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Brenda Saunders is a Sydney writer of Wiradjuri and British descent. She has written three collections of poetry and her work has appears in major anthologies and journals, including Australian Poetry Journal, Quadrant, Overland, Southerly and Best Australian Poems 2013 and 2015 (Black Inc). Brenda is a mentor for Black Wallaby, the Verity La Emerging Indigenous Poets Project. Brenda also reviews for Westerly, Mascara and Plumwood Mountain.