The Act Ovalhouse Theatre

The Sexual Offences Act (1967) was passed by the British government to give partial liberty to individuals wanting to have homosexual sex. It decriminalised homosexual acts of no more than two adults, aged 21 or over, within a private dwelling. It took a small step towards lifting an oppressive legal system which marginalised homosexuals and bisexuals in the UK.

It would be a dry subject of study were the topic of homosexuality not a continuing political football kicked around by politicians across various countries, most recently and notably Russia but by no means limited to that country, and usually in order to shore up the support of social conservatives. It’s a bald and horrific argument, based on a terrifying idea of a ‘normal’ relationship, a ‘normal’ body, and a ‘normal’ set of human relations and expectations. All of which makes interesting material in the theatre, a place where people gather to form social cohesion and open dialogue, and a place where this ‘normal’ can be directly confronted, and those it excludes – by accident or design – rendered suddenly visible.

The Act, a beautifully small work conceived by director Thomas Hescott and actor Matthew Baldwin, is a series of vignettes formed around this legal event. The drama begins with a schoolteacher preparing for a dinner party; it promptly proceeds into verbatim material drawn from the pre-1967 era, documentation of the formation of the Act, and autobiographical experiences of the actor. It’s a smorgasbord of voices and stories, and it’s not always clear what time we are in, or what the political context (and ramifications) are. This is sometimes frustrating, but also creates some interesting moments. When the character discusses how people who are homosexual “deserve our compassion”, for example, he may be speaking with a 1967-based misguided paternalism, or a contemporary one. It is not clearly demarcated whether this is satire or not – I took it to be – and it’s perhaps a credit to the text that it works with these nuances and relies on the viewer to make their judgement. Although this is not always a safe bet.

The intimacy of the play is stifled by what I felt to be a particularly British politeness, and something of the expected anger is missing – surely a prerequisite given the source material. The social order maintained, audiences are free only to side with the actor, with the risk of marginalisation neatly sidestepped and a mission of social cohesion complete. I wondered: what if we had continued that great tradition of fiery activism that led homosexuals everywhere to dismiss with camp vigour the comment of one Lord Arran after the bill was passed – “I ask those [homosexuals] to show their thanks by comporting themselves quietly and with dignity… any form of ostentatious behaviour now or in the future or any form of public flaunting would be utterly distasteful… [And] make the sponsors of this bill regret that they had done what they had done” – and become a significant, powerful, visible voice against dominant social structures and heteronormativity?

Or perhaps I should get with the times.

The Act is playing at the Ovalhouse Theatre until 26 October. For more information and tickets, see the Ovalhouse Theatre website.

Photo by Robert Workman.