After the Act: A Section 28 Musical – New Diorama Theatre, London

Reviewer: Scott Matthewman

Writers: Ellice Stevens and Billy Barrett

Composer: Frew

Director: Billy Barrett

It all started so innocuously. A few people at Haringey Council thought it would not be unreasonable for gay men and lesbians (and the rest of the LGBTQ+ spectrum, although those were not terms in general usage at the time) to be treated a bit better. The resulting outcry whipped up a frenzy: children were being indoctrinated with filth, the argument went, and the spittle-flecked anger was all justified in the name of safeguarding children.

And so the Local Government Act 1988 ended up with Section 28, forbidding councils (and, by extension, schools) from doing anything that might be seen as “promoting” homosexuality. The law remained in force until 2000 in Scotland and 2003 in the rest of the UK, damaging both LGBTQ+ children and their teachers for a generation.

Breach’s new work uses quotes both from the time and newer interviews with people involved to create a verbatim musical exploring the event leading up to the Act’s enshrinement into law, and the effects it had. Starting with a couple of lesbian activists explaining how they managed to get into Television Centre and disrupt the BBC Six O’Clock News – never seen on screen, they could be heard shouting as Sue Lawley apologised to viewers for being “rather invaded”, and Nicholas Witchell sat on one of the protestors – the events then spool back to explore British social politics of the 1980s in more detail.

The cast of four – co-writer Ellice Stevens, Zachary Willis, Tika Mu’tamir and EM Williams – take on a variety of roles, ricocheting between recollections of campaigners, teachers and school children and reenactments of parliamentary debates in which Conservative disgust at the notion that people might not be straight and cisgender seemed to be more important than the facts.

The verbatim nature of the dialogue means that the songs, composed by Frew, often lack the lyrical catchiness one often associates with musical theatre. But the repetition of phrases to convert them into song lyrics can have a powerful effect. After the Act isn’t quite as polished as Alecky Blythe and Adam Cork’s London Road (the most successful proponent of this form of musical theatre to date) but the New Diorama’s grungy, homemade, VCR aesthetic feels powerfully appropriate for the era.

Despite the show’s title, Act I is predominantly set before Section 28 was enshrined into law. Groups of angry, fearful parents, whipped up against the slightest possibility that their children might be educated that some people might be gay, protest outside schools; in Parliament, sane voices are shouted down by the likes of Dame Jill Knight, intent on bringing in badly-written legislation in the name of some nebulous “decency”.

We also hear from a schoolboy (Willis) who, aware that he is gay, spots the parallels within A Streetcar Named Desire. He is told by his teacher that she soon won’t be able to talk about how Tennessee Williams was gay, and was talking about his own sexual experiences through his (ostensibly heterosexual) characters.

With the moment Section 28 came into force marking the end of Act I, the second act concentrates on the practical effects, although it kicks off with Stevens reimagining Margaret Thatcher’s notorious Conservative Party Conference speech (in which she said that children were being taught they had an “inalienable right to be gay”) as a sequin-heavy dance number.

That moment of levity is welcome because while comedy is laced through the whole musical, the stories being told are heartbreaking. A teacher (also Stevens), spotted in a gay bar by one of her sixth formers, returns to school petrified that she’ll be sacked; when the pupil discloses that she thinks she, too, might be gay, the teacher reacts with anger and intolerance born out of her own fear.

Elsewhere, EM Williams frequently visits the character of “LB”, a Christian whose Surrey church puts them through what is euphemistically called “conversion therapy”, but is clearly abuse and torture. When screams of physical pain can be heard in nearby rooms, there is clearly nothing Christian or therapeutic in nature.

Throughout, all the events leading up to the Act’s enshrinement into law and its consequences clearly have parallels in today’s hysteria and panic about trans and other LGBTQ+ people. From protests outside innocuous drag story time events, demonstrations outside Birmingham schools, legislation going through various US state assemblies – and, just yesterday, complaints about sex education content being raised, without evidence, in the House of Commons – the parallels are clearly there. After the Act may not need its small section explicitly calling out these parallels, but its presence is appreciated.

The musical closes with a recreation of a large-scale protest in Manchester against Section 28 – one of the biggest the city had ever seen. It’s a reminder that when the LGBTQ+ community and its allies can come together, the resultant love and support are stronger than any hatred.

That is a message we need right now, especially when some of those who battled against Section 28 have no qualms about being on the other side in recent events. History repeats and love will win. But it’s not too late to prevent some of the pain inflicted then from being repeated now. After the Act is a warning from history, and a much-needed one at that.

Continues until 1 April 2023

The Reviews Hub Score

Much needed

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The Reviews Hub - London

The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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