After the Act at New Diorama Theatre review: Section 28 musical is engagingly scrappy and righteously angry

 (Alex Brenner)
(Alex Brenner)

This engagingly scrappy, righteously angry show marks 20 years since Section 28 of the UK Local Government Act, banning the “promotion of homosexuality” by local authorities, was fully repealed. Setting personal testimonies, media reports and parliamentary statements to music it shows how ludicrous and lastingly pernicious this law was.

Gay sex was decriminalised in England and Wales in 1967; the Section 28 amendment, passed in 1988 when paranoia about Aids was also rampant, re-stigmatised a generation. The MPs debating the proposal acknowledged that same-sex relationships had always existed. Yet they voted into law a clause suggesting that any non-critical acknowledgment of this, particularly in a school situation, was tantamount to anti-heterosexual propaganda.

Ellice Stevens and Billy Barrett’s musical, which last night reopened the New Diorama Theatre after it went dark for six months, acknowledges how funny the recent past can seem. In the mid-1980s, heterosexuals hitherto unbothered, or chauvinistically amused by homosexuality were suddenly whipped into a moral panic by the fact that two copies of a Danish children’s’ book, Jenny Lives with Eric and Martin, existed in a Haringey library. In retaliation against the government’s draconian legislation, lesbians stormed the House of Lords and the Six O’Clock News. Nicholas Witchell sat on one of them.

But alongside this is the tragedy and the damage. Here are stories of verbal, mental and physical abuse legitimised – wittingly or otherwise – by Margaret Thatcher’s government. We hear from pupils who couldn’t articulate their feelings and teachers who didn’t dare help them, for fear of prosecution or persecution.

 (Alex Brenner)
(Alex Brenner)

We learn of teenage suicide attempts, self-harm and a chilling account of attempted conversion therapy. There’s an echo throughout of Matthew Lopez’s hit The Inheritance, which posited the idea that Aids had deprived a generation of American gay men of older, wiser mentors. Here, a non-binary source identified only as L.B. suggests that, in Britain, the same generation of gay men and lesbians was forced back into the closet for many years: “The legacy of Section 28 is the silence.”

A very brisk show is performed by a likeable, energetic cast of four in colour-coded suits and white trainers on a bare wood set. Its composer, Frew, and a colleague provide live accompaniment from a mezzanine platform. The operatic technique of recitative – dialogue set to music – is used to great comic effect, especially when Thatcher’s 1987 conference speech is deployed. Homophobic slurs are gleefully repackaged as the chorus of a defiant song.

Admittedly, the overall vibe is a bit student-y, the acting strident and the choreography full of basic shoulder-dips and clenched-fist salutes. But kudos to the New Diorama, an increasingly influential player in London theatre, for commissioning and co-producing this show.

After the Act reminds us that hard-won liberties can be summarily rolled back. And that governments and sections of the media will sometimes demonise minorities to detract from other, more pressing societal concerns. Now, why does that ring a bell?

New Diorama Theatre, to April 1;