If you search Hansard, the transcript of everything ever said in Parliament, for ‘syphilis, gonorrhea and genital herpes’ there is only one result. It’s a furiously homophobic speech given by the Conservative MP Jill Knight in 1987 as she led the charge for a law that banned ‘the promotion of homosexuality in schools and local authorities’.
The members of Breach Theatre weren’t alive when Section 28 was passed in 1988 but the 15 years it was in force had a wounding legacy on the generations that grew up under its influence. Through verbatim testimony, Parliamentary transcripts, news reports and other materials from the time, these four performers tell the story of one of the most regressive, destructive and cruel pieces of legislation in this country’s recent history. Oh, and it’s a musical.
Writer/director Billy Barrett and writer/performer Ellice Stevens have strong form when it comes to big themes and inventive use of verbatim: there was 2016’s ‘Tank’ about the CIA’s experiments with dolphins, and their 2018 masterpiece ‘It’s True, It’s True, It’s True’, which used the transcript of a seventeenth-century rape case to show up the woefully inadequate approach to rape convictions today. The company’s powers are undiminished with ‘After the Act’. It’s a bit messy, a bit imperfect, but its flaws are completely overwhelmed by all that’s good about the show.
The songs sound like the score to some amazing ’80s action movie
Broadly chronological, it consists of a series of vignettes and showpieces set to music and movement. There’s the moment two lesbian activists stormed the BBC six o’clock news and presenter Nicholas Witchell knelt on one of them to keep her quiet, re-enacted as farce, the activists dancing as they lie pinned on the floor. There’s a singing Thatcher in a sequinned dress and flyaway wig. There are also devastating stories from people who grew up under the Act, and who were so damaged by it.
The first half looks at the stirring up of the moral panic around homosexuality, mainly stemming from a children’s book called ‘Jenny Lives With Eric and Martin’. One amazing sequence comes when a group of parents, terrified by this book, get a huge, stomping anthem about the dangers of encouraging children to be gay. ‘Where are all the ordinary mums and dads?’ they sing in a triumphant chorus. It would be exhilarating if it weren’t so chilling.
Most of this half takes place behind a gauze onto which are projected materials from the time, given a grainy, VHS look. Streams of verbatim lyrics are squashed into dancy, synthy, driving music by mono-named composer Frew who stands on a raised platform at a keyboard, like Chris Lowe from Pet Shop Boys. Often the songs sound like the score to some amazing ’80s action movie.
As well as bringing that era to life through music and montage, Breach seem to adopt the theatrical form of the ’80s too, the kind of scrappy, deeply political agitprop approach of pioneering companies like Gay Sweatshop.
The second half, shunting forwards into the ’90s, adopts a different aesthetic. The projections stop, and the stage is more like a bare warehouse, Frew more like some club DJ up on his platform. We hear about life while Section 28 is in force: teachers who had to hide their sexuality or lose their career, desperate kids who had nowhere to go when they were confused about their sexuality, sneaking any remotely gay books out of the library or seeing glimpses on TV programmes.
Not all the choreography is on point, nor the singing either. But that’s not really the aim here. It’s not trying to emulate the gloss of a West End show, and the odd bum note or uncoordinated dance is easy to excuse. Towards the end of the show, though, is a more serious problem: it seems to lose faith in its form and in its audience. It stops being a musical, and it suddenly becomes heavy-handed, laying on thickly the themes and ideas which were, until that point, all the more powerful for being implicit.
The refrain that we hear again and again from the promoters of Section 28 is that classic line: ‘we’re just trying to protect our children’. What ‘After the Act’ shows so magnificently is that, for so many children, Section 28 didn’t protect them. It destroyed them.