It’s 1988, and Thatcher’s government has just brought in Section 28 – legislation that stated schools “shall not intentionally promote homosexuality” or “promote the teaching… of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship”. Meanwhile, fourteen-year-old Michael has just returned from a runaway trip to Brighton and is summoning up the courage to come out to his mother. Here begins Chris Woodley’s Next Lesson, which charts Michael’s journey through the education system first as a student, and subsequently as a teacher. Alongside him, other stories of teachers and pupils in one London high school are explored, all of them feeling the effects of Section 28 and its legacy as we move through the years.
Woodley’s script expertly negotiates a series of different conflicts and relationships, as in short scenes these sketched characters are brought to life through dialogue that broaches the personal and political with a deft touch. As the only actor playing a single role, Stanley Eldridge as Michael is the constant presence that links the piece together, and shows skilful development of his character from hesitant teenager, to estranged son, to successful teacher. His quiet heartbreak is moving and effective.
All other members of the cast multi-role impressively. Esmé Patey-Ford (co-founder of Hyphen Theatre Company) is forceful in all of her roles, effortlessly creating rounded characters and inhabiting them with passion. Elsewhere Anna Odeke shines in her comedic scenes – particularly as student Chloe -, Lucas Livesey shows the most impressive versatility, and Cole Michaels is both amusing and poignant as his characters tackle tricky issues head on.
The structure of Woodley’s play allows the episodes to stand alone yet also effectively tracks the progression of gay rights, and changing social views, through the latter part of the twentieth century – all accompanied by an energetic soundtrack that precisely places each scene at a certain point in history. From the unspeakable to the celebratory, the act of talking freely about one’s sexuality develops from a risk to a right, but the script never polemic or melodramatic.
While the work’s structure is one of its great strengths however, it does make life harder for the director and casts due to the quick-fire nature of scene changes, and there are inevitably some snippets in which you get more emotionally invested. However, in maintaining the same setting and some of the same characters, Woodley cleverly crafts the show so that some scenes get a greater pay-off later in the night, taking us by surprise and preventing the evening becoming disjointed.
My one disappointment is that the play could give more focus on the most recent developments in history, as the achievements of gay rights campaigners continue to be seen – with more than 15,000 gay marriages in England and Wales since its legalisation last year. However, this is a sharply-scripted and deftly-crafted show that entertains and engages with issues that remaining pressing and relevant.
Next Lesson is playing at the Pleasance Theatre until 25 October. For more information and tickets, see the Pleasance Theatre website. Photo by Mihaela Bodlovic.