In 1988, the Conservative government introduced a series of laws across Britain under Section 28 that prohibited the “promotion of homosexuality” by local authorities. Whipped up by media panic and the Danish book ‘Jenny lives with Eric and Martin’, the bill had a devastating effect on the lives of LGBTQ+ people and still leaves a terrifying legacy within the teaching profession.
20 years after the infamous bills’ repeal, multi-award-winning theatre company Breach (It’s True, It’s True, It’s True) have transformed archival interviews from teachers, activists and students who lived and worked during the reign of Section 28 into a verbatim musical complete with impassioned songs accompanied by 80s synth. Directed by company co-founder Billy Barrett, this musical feels all the more pertinent as trans rights become more restrictive than ever within the United Kingdom.
The cast – Tika Mu’tamir, Ellice Stevens (also co-founder and writer), EM Williams and Zachary Willis – re-enact the accounts of various different stakeholders in the bill whilst wearing a jazzy selection of 80s outfits. The singing is for the most part quite strong – especially Mu’tamir – though more is spoken than explicitly sung so that the words used can be thoroughly digested by the audience. A jaunty tune relaying the various slurs hurled at gay people is particularly good.
There is a vague chronology to the show though we jump back and forward in time when best suits. We begin with the storming of the BBC TV Studio by lesbian activists before following the campaign of terror launched by the Tory party and right-wing groups over materials available via Haringey Council to present a positive image of gay and lesbian people. Other iconic moments include a group of activists abseiling into the House of Lords after Section 28 is made law as well as various debates within the Commons where homophobic comments are made with (pardon the pun) gay abandon.
Stevens gives a particularly fantastic performance. Her comic timing is impeccable and her performance as a near-drag Margaret Thatcher to open the second half is simply fantastic. Williams and Mu’tamir provide great support and narrative direction as they effectively recreate one interview between pairs of lesbian activitists who took part in the storming of the BBC and abseiling into the House of Lords to protest the bill respectively. Willis brings a wonderful tenderness to his retelling of a young gay man who attempted suicide at school due to the lack of support, guidance or communication about his sexuality.
Archival footage and backdrops are projected onto the sets various layered walls (Leach). These are sometimes playful, at other times deadly serious as we see young men in hospital with AIDS. The use of video adds great movement to the set that is otherwise rather plain though makes great use of levels and steps to enhance the space. The musicians – Frew and Ellie Showering – station themselves above the stage on a raised platform and provide a thoroughly energetic performance.
A sheer sheet and projector is used for a fair chunk of the first half which works particularly well when we are watching Sue Lawley deliver her news broadcast but provides a bit of a psychological barrier as we move to real-life testimony. It is welcome when it is removed. It is also a shame that the platform on which the musicians are stationed is not utilised for the famous abseil though health and safety concerns are of course understood!
After the Act is a powerful and inspired piece of theatre. The songs are inventive and engaging and the performances are thoroughly heartfelt. This is a must-see.
“Over the course of the play, no antagonist is revealed, and little conflict truly arises, resulting in a flat conclusion”
Performance itself lies at the heart of The Prince, Abigail Thorn’s playwriting debut at Southwark Playhouse’s Large Theatre. Characters find themselves stuck inside a multiverse of Shakespearean dramas (Though the action is mostly confined to Henry IV Part I) and at odds with the rigidity of their roles. Sam, played by Joni Ayton-Kent, who is cast as a number of nameless bit characters, is desperately searching for a way out. Mary Malone plays Jen, who finds herself in a similar situation and decides to tag along with Sam. Jen, however, finds tensions within the ways in which the primary characters perform their gender, and begins to poke holes in their constructed identities. In particular, Jen reads Thorn’s Hotspur as a trans woman and Corey Montague Sholay’s Prince Hal as a gay man. Over the course of the play, both characters waffle between conformity to their roles and self-actualization, a broader metaphor for the struggles endured and decisions faced when butting up against a rigid gender binary, especially the construct of masculinity. Though The Prince suffers from a lack of narrative coherence, the metaphor is powerful and at times quite personally affecting.
Thorn and Malone, both in principal roles, turn in strong performances. Malone plays Jen’s fish-out-of-water bewilderment with earnest charm and comedic timing. The funniest moments of the play come from the ways in which other characters play off of hers. Thorn, as Hotspur, carries the show. She peels back her character’s internal tension in careful layers and remains nimble and forceful in her handling of both her own verse and Shakespeare’s. The scenes in which she actively decides to continue in the role of the masculine hero at the expense of her own identity carry tremendous weight. It is unfortunate then, that the structural foundation of the play is unable to support these performances.
The Prince seems to eschew both coherent world-building and narrative signposting, both of which are essential when leading an audience through a multiverse. The moments when Jen is able to break the Shakespearean characters out of their performances are nearly indistinguishable for the moments when they remain stuck. In essence, these breaks happen at random, giving Jen little to learn about the mechanics of the world into which she has been dropped. Sam’s desire to escape should be easily aided by a magical map of sorts, represented by a somewhat unconvincing plastic tetrahedron, but the object only appears all-powerful in Jen’s hands, though no context is given to allow the audience to understand this discrepancy. These two characters are also denied specific or rich inner lives, even an inkling of who they might be outside of their current situation. The multiverse device primarily exists in absentia, as most of Sam and Jen’s haphazard narrative hopping occurs within Henry IV Part I. The play’s only detour into Hamlet arrives without much context and serves only as justification to shoehorn in the “To be, or not to be?” soliloquy, though Thorn delivers it well. Over the course of the play, no antagonist is revealed, and little conflict truly arises, resulting in a flat conclusion.
Martha Godfrey’s lighting design feels similarly uneven. The tubes of LED light that hang at odd angles above the playing space are visually compelling and seem to indicate different corners of the Shakespearean multiverse. But their function remains out of sync with the play throughout, illuminating, changing colours, falling and rising without impetus or textual justification. Rebecca Cartwright’s historical costumes, on the other hand, are a strong point of the play’s design—the ways in which they mutate alongside Jen’s poking and prodding is masterful.
Though it contains joyous and raucous moments, as well as symbolic significance, Thorn’s debut remains unnecessarily messy throughout, wanting for narrative drive and formal consistency.