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 Though Section 28 was not repealed in England until 2003, difference becomes more acceptable as time passes but Woodley still shows the impact on individual lives through such bigoted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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