Review: After the Act at New Diorama Theatre, London

Friday 10th March 2023 at New Diorama Theatre, London


Reviewer: Emma Dorfman

After the Act, a brand-new musical from NDT Associates, Breach, (from which you may have also seen It’s True, It’s True, It’s True) has conquered the beast that is verbatim theatre. This (unfortunately) timely story is brought to the fore through multimedia elements and effective, thoughtful songwriting that ultimately conveys the importance of not just queer visibility but queer affirmation.

Section 28, we are told, was a Local Government Act passed in 1988 that discouraged open conversations about homosexuality in educational settings. Not too far into the musical, we are introduced to the precise wording of the Act through a projected sheet that will serve as an effective frame for the on-stage action about to transpire. It reads:

‘A local authority shall not—

(a) intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality;

(b) promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship’.

It isn’t too difficult to deduce the overall impact of the Act when it was passed in 1988: this was at the height of the AIDS Epidemic, when sexual education for young people was not just a matter of importance, but one of life and death. The piece, as a whole, is also particularly timely considering recent events of anti-trans violence in the UK. From the murder of 16-year-old Brianna Ghey to the anti-drag protests at Tate Britain just last month, it is clear that the legacy of Section 28 still lives on and is still relevant to Britain’s queer community.

As we delve into the personal stories of the people who lived through the implementation of the Act, projections, once again, provide a frame for the real words of these real people. Their names are projected just above the actors’ heads. It’s an incredibly small gesture but one that is packed full of meaning. Additionally conveying this message – beyond visibility and into the territory of acceptability – is the songwriting itself.

The songs, I noticed, weren’t particularly catchy. And I didn’t particularly mind either. In addition to the jaunty, upbeat choreography (Sung Im Her) and punchy performances from an all-star ensemble (Tika Mu’tamir, Ellice Stevens, EM Williams, Zachary Willis), It was clear to me that writers Ellice Stevens and Billy Barrett were not concerning themselves with providing us with snappy showtunes for our family road trips, but rather, they were more concerned with the words – the actual text spoken – by the interviewees themselves.

Every single stutter, ‘um’ and ‘uh’ is left in the music and lyrics, which fully affirm these characters’ testimonials whilst adding a level of veracity to the performance itself. As opposed to ignoring or writing off past events (and these past events – are they really a part of the ‘past’ if it’s still an issue in this country today?), the writers and the ensemble use song to bring this testimony back into the limelight.

Also bringing the past directly into the present are the multimedia elements and interactive scenography, which allow for fluid movement between the piece’s genres: the documentary and the theatrical. Projections of anti-Section 28 and pro-Section 28 protests further illuminate the era, allowing for deeper immersion into an eclectic, fun, colourful, yet highly divisive, evangelical, right-wing 1980s Britain. The projected video may, once again, seem like a very small gesture, however, it adds a confrontational flavour which leads to massive payoffs throughout the piece. Stand-alone testimonials, for instance, are no longer difficult-to-comprehend, ‘outsider’ stories, but they become real before our very eyes.

Equally confrontational is the ensemble’s manipulation of the scenography. At one moment, for instance, they act out the famous children’s book, Jenny Lives with Eric and Martin, which depicts a young girl who lives at home with her two dads. The story is cut short when one of the actors tears down the projection screen as they transition into a depiction of the family protests in Haringey—protests that were largely motivated by similar ‘educational’ materials that may have ‘promoted’ homosexuality and ‘pretend families’.

Another layer is physically peeled from the story as the characters find themselves feeling robbed of control. We hear testimonials that show people being outed without their consent; others, grappling with figuring out where, exactly, they lie on spectrums of sexuality and gender. All these stories have incredible resonance with our modern landscape, even if we did repeal the Act long ago (2003 in England and Wales). As one performer states, in words that may very well be their own, ‘The era we’re in now is the Section 28 for trans people’.

Many times, I find that verbatim/documentary pieces – shows that depict historical events – often reach too far for a connection to modern times. Because After the Act has created such a tight vessel for itself in regard to staging, text, music and media, it doesn’t even have to try for this connection. It is, most unfortunately, embedded in our very history.

After the Act is at New Diorama Theatre, London until April 1st 2023 – you can find more information and tickets here.

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