All being well, the first equal marriages in Britain are due to take place on 29 March, the date of The Act’s final performance at Trafalgar Studios. I’m quite convinced that the pioneers who campaigned to get the Wolfenden Report’s recommendations into law in 1967 (the Sexual Offences Act) would never have dreamed of one day being able to say ‘I do’.
It is this, often morbidly fascinating, period of British social history that Thomas Hescott’s The Act examines. The 1967 Act, as well as the literal act of raw, oft loveless, sex, and chance encounters in public toilets, dangerous liaisons, careers and reputations in jeopardy, are all explored in, er, one act.
The piece derives its power from the writing, which extracts genuine discussion and debate from parliament and presents it in all its cold and clinical glory. No embellishment is required. Homosexuality is ‘distasteful’ and ‘repulsive’. Being gay is ‘a disability, a deviation’ and those who suffer from it are often condemned as being ‘effeminate, depraved and exhibitionist’. Whilst this choice of language may be shocking or laughable to a British audience today, (such as the farcical notion that decriminalisation would lead to an increase in the gay population) much of it sadly still rings true. Homosexuality is ‘undesirable because it leads to loneliness and unhappiness…and the heavy burden of guilt’. High levels of treatment for depression amongst gay people would suggest that in some areas, little has changed in the last 47 years. Yet this language is juxtaposed wondrously with the imagined scenes. Upon being presented with an erect penis, we are told that Matthew Baldwin’s character ‘didn’t know whether to smack it one, or put it over my shoulder and burp it.’
Indeed it is Baldwin’s terrific performance which carries these words and allows them to resonate with the audience. He knows just when to let a line hang in the air, and when to take the machine gun approach and bombard us with thought and emotion. He is effortlessly magnetic (and, incidentally, totally unrecognisable from recent turns as the Dame in Above The Stag’s saucy Jack Off The Beanstalk) and delivers both poignancy and punch. As well as displaying Baldwin’s acting talents, the one man format also works to make secondary characters become almost ghost-like; they are relics from a recently by-gone age. We imagine characters such as the young and beautiful Jim, which gives them a haunting power. We are thankful for their existence in terms for the role they played, deliberately or unintentionally, in furthering gay liberation.
Akin to The Pride (also recently on at Trafalgar Studios), The Act is book-ended with contemporary gay London life, and a stinging critique of the blinkered existence which pays no creed to the journey gay liberation is still on. It is ‘bloodless’ according to Baldwin. Highly publicised cases of the situation in Russia and Uganda shows just how far we still need to go. Perhaps one day pieces like The Act can be enjoyed simply for their artistic merit. But for now, they are still very sadly relevant.
The Act is on at Trafalgar Studios until 29 March. For more information and tickets, see the Trafalgar Studios website.