Next Lesson, Pleasance Theatre

image1In 1998, Thatcher introduced controversial Section 28 that banned promotion of homosexuality, publishing materials that supported it and teaching its acceptability in schools. Playwright Chris Woodley, fascinated by the change in schools’ attitudes towards homosexuality in pupils and staff between his student years in the 1980s and his teaching career in the 2000s, documents the effects of Section 28 on those affiliated with schools: pupils, teachers, and staff and parents alike. The play loosely centres on the character Michael, a GCSE student at Beckenham High School in 1988, who returns to teach there in 1996. Though Section 28 was not repealed in England until 2003, difference becomes more acceptable as time passes but Woodley still shows the impact on individual lives through such bigoted legislation.

A diverse cast of characters populates Beckenham High over nearly 20 years with their day-to-day battles and victories of being gay during and after Section 28. Superbly acted and well-written, Woodley’s script contains excellent scenes but the story as a whole could use more focus on Michael, as his journey is partially eclipsed by episodes from the lives of other gay people working and studying at Beckenham High. Though their stories are equally valid, if this play were to be lengthened Michael’s character arc should move to the forefront to give the whole piece a stronger focus. The early part of the play shows Michael coming out to his mother, but the audience doesn’t see him again until years later as an English teacher. In the meantime, teachers battle against curriculum restrictions and the stigma of being out at work. Not that these are issues that ever disappear completely, but these early scenes capture the stress of being gay in a Section 28 world. During his teaching career, we meet other gay teachers and students who become increasingly comfortable with expressing their sexuality.

An ensemble of six adeptly play several roles each, except Stanley Eldridge as Michael. Director Andrew Beckett uses costume, small set changes, the year written on a chalkboard and music to indicate scene and character changes. Within the scenes, the direction is otherwise wonderfully unnoticeable. The cast is balanced, with no one standing out as stronger or weaker than the others and I’m hard-pressed to choose a personal favourite.

Some particularly good moments include Michael’s estranged mother surprising him at work on his birthday; the brightly coloured helium balloon and gift bag juxtapose his rage and her half-hearted apologies. The scenes discussing the impact of the Admiral Duncan bombing in 1999 on Michael’s life are powerfully moving and a reminder that the individuals cannot always speak for the entire gay community. Student Chloe (Anne Odeke) hilariously defends punching a male student after bullying her for being a lesbian to her form tutor. The script is filled with other great moments, but there was no singular moment of climax.

This is without a doubt an important play and introduces Woodley’s gift for creating excellent character-driven scripts. There is easily scope for this play to develop and it also deserves to be seen for its documentation of a moment in history that we have mercifully moved past, but its scars are still present in homophobia in and out of the classroom.

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Infection, London Horror Festival

Sam, Dominique and Will don’t always get on with each other. It doesn’t help that they’re under a lot of stress due to a zombie-alien invasion, and can’t work out if any other people survive in their town. Dom and Will are brother and sister who don’t have much in common, and Will has no patience with Dom’s bestie Sam, a vegan, weed-smoking student. Considering all of that, they do quite well for most of Infection, a new play by the Brighton-based Bath Street Productions. With scenes alternating between the past and the present and clear transitions making this is easy to follow, but performances vary according to emotional intensity, and some of the writing is similarly overwrought. There are some witty one-liners and moving moments that, with the absence of the zombie-aliens, prevents Infection from becoming too much like a zombie film, even with strong parallels to Shawn of the Dead.

The script by Faye Woodbridge has a clear dramatic arc and climax, with a format that facilitates suspense by starting in the present, than jumping back to the beginning of the invasion two weeks previously, moving the plot forward by jumping back and forth until we’re back in present. The story itself isn’t particularly inventive, especially as we never properly see the zombie aliens or learn about how the invasion started. Other survivors communicate through graffiti on the supermarket walls, but these are never seen either. Infection is a microcosm but lacks the scope present in zombie films, despite all of the references the characters bandy around. It suits a small-scale theatre space, but doesn’t quite capture the fear of the situation what with exclusively showing such a small group of characters. There’s no sense of scale. There are some minor anomalies – though the attacks are actually seen once, the three keep getting injured without clear explanation. How do zombie aliens sprain the girls’ ankles and dislocate their shoulders? Surely they’d go for something a bit more deadly? Despite the supermarket messages, the characters comment on the town’s emptiness. Even with these issues, it wouldn’t take much development to expand the play and make the invasion’s impact more widely felt, even without adding the invaders.

Writer Woodbridge also plays Dom, giving the most consistent and believable performance from the cast of three. Direction was occasionally obvious through mechanical blocking with no clear purpose; no individual director was credited in the programme, instead directorial credit lies with the production company. A designated outside eye not part of the cast would be able to provide more unity in movement. Martin Wright’s transition sound design is excellent, providing clarity and reinforcing the gravity of their situation.

The most interesting aspect of this script is the gender dynamics that emerge during a time of crisis. Will (Michael Williams) feels obligated to protect his young sister Dom, even though they’ve grown apart as adults and don’t really know each other anymore. He treats Sam (Katie Newman) more like a bloke than he does his sister, despite her diminutive size and more girlish tendencies. Will revels in being the big, strong man even though his foolhardiness and bravado cause further problems, and Dom’s insistence of proving that she can look after herself exacerbates the danger in their situation. The girls’ comic one-liners help draw attention to the ridiculousness of Will’s old-fashioned mindset, as well as add levity to the script.

Though this certainly is not a bad production, but in order to stand out in the zombie field something dramatically different needs to be done. It’s easy to go with a popular formula for success and this is a good representation of it, but not a particularly inventive one.

The Play’s The Thing UK is an independent theatre criticism website maintained voluntarily. Whilst donations are never expected, they are hugely appreciated and will enable more time to be spent reviewing theatre productions of all sizes. Click here to make a donation with PayPal.