Review by Sam Waite
In 1988, following years of increasing anti-gay sentiment, Section 28 was passed into law. This series of legislations forbade the “promotion of homosexuality” by local authorities – this included, but was by no means limited to, schools and teachers being unable to present any support for the LGBTQ+ community. New verbatim musical After The Act tackles just some of the countless stories of those affected by this bleak time in our collective history, using words taken directly form interviews with queer people who came of age during the 15 years (12 in Scotland) where Section 28 was in effect.
Stories from the years leading up to the decision and those where it was in place are told here – the people whose stories have been adapted were largely either teachers or children and teens during the period. All featured, of course, are members of the queer community. The small cast also step into other roles throughout – news presenters, schoolyard bullies, supportive actors, and even then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Some of the stories are presented through movement and action, with the cast acting out what the speaker at that moment is describing to us. Elsewhere, when the interview answers are more emotionally-focused than story-telling, cast members are still and speak openly to the audience, the first names or initials of the person whose words they're speaking projected alongside them.
Writer-director Billy Barrett and co-writer Ellie Stevens have ordered the anecdotes available to them well, striking a balance between the more hard-hitting moments and those with a more comedic dynamic outcome. Where one story ends with a teacher being so determined to hide her sexuality that she instilled further shame in a struggling student, another builds excitement through recreating a protest involving abseiling into a meeting of members of parliament. Also an empowering moment which helps to elevate the mood of the piece, bleak though the subject may be, is a staging of the 1988 Manchester protest prior to Section 28’s passing, demonstrating that despite the crowd mentality of the time there was still support for the community.
Frew, the composer and musical director for After The Act, has weaved certain moments into musical numbers. Providing simple but effective backing for the recitative, often almost spoken-word verses, Frew also shows a knack for finding key phrases and moments of speech which lend themselves to repetition to create a chorus. At one point, the cast list off homophobic slurs the characters had heard throughout their youths, and as their recitations overlap there is a distinct sense of musicality and poetry to how some of these anecdotes were carefully spoken. Never overpowering the words themselves, Frew’s contributions serve only to enhance the impact of these experiences. Frew also provides live accompaniment alongside Ellie Showering, both playing well, and providing additional vocals to help the harmonies of the actors blend more smoothly.
The cast – Tika Mu’tamir, EM Williams, Zachary Willis and co-writer Ellice Stevens – are excellent, performing across genders, identities, backgrounds, and even political agendas as they swap seamlessly between characters. The foursome keep a sense of musicality to their more spoken moments of musical performance, which displaying solid vocal abilities when called for. A true ensemble, it is clear from the very beginning that these gifted actors understand the importance of the stories they're tasked with translating.
Between Steven and Barrett’s directing of the scene work and the choreography by Sung Im Her, movement feels natural and authentic to these characters, real people telling stories of genuine pain and strife. Movement feels deliberate and impactful, and helps stress certain key phrases within the musicalised dialogue. Along with Lizzy Leech’s simple set (four ever-moving chairs and draped curtains ripped down as part of the action)and the lighting and video by Jodie Underwood and Zak Hein respectively, a small space is enlarged with the sheer impact of this shared history. Hein displays newspaper headlines of an increasingly anti/m-gay nature while the inevitable passing of the laws draws closer, and utilises real crowd footage to transform a cast of four into a 20,000 strong March for rights.
Ellice Stevens and Billy Barrett are the true champions of the evening, their work across different creative field pulling together a show that is as entertaining as it is educational. By allowing true stories to be told so simply, while also giving them a sense of theatricality and grandeur, this duo have created something equal parts moving and comedic, familiar and groundbreaking, historically-minded and forward-facing. In a powerful choice, a brief discussion of modern politics and harmful treatment of the trans community is framed as all-too-similar to what lesbians and gay men faced in 1988, reminding us that the fight for true equality is far from over.
After The Act – A Section 28 Musical plays at the New Diorama Theatre until April 1st.
For tickets, and information about related events, visit https://newdiorama.com/whats-on/after-the-act
Photos by Alex Brenner