Please note: This review – like the production itself – discusses homophobia. Please take care when reading and click off this article if this subject is triggering to you.
The New Diorama’s verbatim musical on Section 28 – the infamous clause from the 1988 Local Government Act which banned the “promotion of homosexuality” by local authorities – is enlightening and affecting in its word-for-word accounts of the people who experienced it, but this is so disappointingly drowned out by a pulsing electronic score which never quite reaches a comfortable crescendo.
An otherwise bold reopening production for the theatre since it closed for its Intervention 101 project, Breach Theatre’s work is more of a play with music than a full-blown musical. Naturally, there’s no rhyming to the lyrics when they’re said exactly as they once were all those decades ago, but they’re all set to the same thrumming, electric and synth-heavy style which soon loses the evidently subversive and emphatic feel composer and musical director Frew was going for.
It makes sense when one considers the LGBTQ+ community’s historic ties to dance and clubbing – even Zakk Hein’s video design and lighting designer Jo Underwood’s pink and blue hues give off a glitzy and edgy aesthetic – but when the uneven splitting of lines hinder any sense of rhythm, and interspersing group vocals become more of a fight to be heard over the instrumental, then it pains me to say that the opening melodies of what looked set to be another musical number in the show started to fill me with dread. When we come to the interval of this 100-minute production with the bongs of Big Ben marking the LGA coming into force, rather than being the punchy thud which should typically conclude the first act, it ends up striking a weaker finish.
As for the quartet which takes to the stage, for some reason the vocals from the only male performer – Zachary Willis – come across louder than the others. It’s as much a compliment to him (he so evidently gives a hearty performance) as it is a criticism of the sound design – and it obviously doesn’t help with the aforementioned blending of lyrics, either.
So instead, I am drawn to the testimonies smoothly woven together by writers Ellice Stevens and Billy Barrett, which tell a comprehensive narrative of the students who all too liberally throw around homophobic insults in classrooms helmed by timid teachers; the parents consumed by a moral panic which combines the hyper-sexuality of queerness with the AIDS epidemic; the activists fighting for a single platform amid such a moral panic; and the politicians who bow into the pressure from families. The building blocks of fear are broken down and laid bare here, and while making the obvious point that we are experiencing a similar moral panic towards trans people right now, it’s stark in explaining just how oblivious some of us are to these blocks being assembled again.
We see this with Stevens’ portrayal of a LGBTQ+ teacher who sees an education system uneducated on transgender issues in a display of hesitance similar to the days of Section 28. This ties in to one of EM Williams’ characters who talk about the decimation of community resources which has significantly harmed self-advocacy in a second act, one which presents itself as completely tonally different to the first. Rather than having multiple narratives occur concurrently, each one has the space to breathe in its own right against a much gentler instrumental, which strikes me as the right balance of music and monologue.
One notable exception in terms of the numbers takes the form of Stevens’ gyrating Thatcher opening up the second act with a party conference speech about children. Her impersonation nails the softly spoken timidity and vulnerability to the ex-PM’s otherwise iron cast persona. I wish we could have seen more political satire, as we are often transported to the Commons and Lords chambers in this musical, but all the politicians are represented with the same robotic jerks and loops in their movements once they’ve said their piece.
Elsewhere, Willis is moving as a student who talks about the normalisation of homophobia in school with a pained disbelief, and Williams and Tika Mu’tamir are rousing as two abseiling, media hijacking protestors – the use of ropes tied to the aisle in the audience is a clever creative idea well executed, too.
After the Act is informative, and retells the horrors of Section 28 with a renewed modern urgency, even if this is somewhat marred by its musical presentation.
After the Act is now playing at the New Diorama Theatre until 1 April.
A captioned performance will take place on 15 March, with a relaxed performance on 16 March.
Production Images: Alex Brenner.
Disclaimer: I was invited to watch ‘After the Act’ for free in exchange for a review of the performance as a member of the press. I did not receive payment for this article and all opinions stated above are honest and my own.