Review: The Act
We went to see the play that all of gay London is talking about...
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Scenes from the cesspools of London’s gay underworld are tossed with verbatim House of Commons speeches, raunchy anecdotes of homosexual awakening and a splash of satirical sing-song in Thomas Hescott and Matthew Baldwin’s new production The Act.
Constrained to an hour, this one-man show is a sinewy and hypnotic little salad that superimposes the political forefront of 1960s gay rights against the blocked-urinal deep end of the period’s gay culture.
This striking melange is of course captured in the title which simultaneously refers to the law, the lovemaking and the play itself.
The piece has a solid comic worth, which comes from several directions, but primarily arrives in the form of Edna May Gladys Anne - a loose-lipped and inherently lonely downtown scene queen. Edna administrates male escorts in an upmarket hotel while also commanding a pitiful gay underworld around herself. Portrayed with sheer sass by Baldwin in a tightly-wrapped flurry of innuendo, polari and sideways glances.
Edna was a real life figure of 1960s London, based on word-of-mouth fact from various gay scene sources and brought to the stage here for the first time ever. The play uses witty one-sided conversations to paint peripheral characters as well, including an ex-military regular called Rubber Cunt, a hilarious pair of bartenders and a shadowy shag named James.
While the play’s literal inverted underworld comes in the form of the gay bar and “the pissoir”, the central character Matthews indulges in a high-art underworld of opera as he takes a boy to see Monteverdi’s Orpheo. Meanwhile the set design showcases its own inferno of gay rights and same-sex relations, depicted in bold black marker pen on a huge roll-out sheet (by gay artist Gavin Dobson), as if the entire play is taking place on one vast sheet of toilet roll.
This abominable Jekyll and Hyde lifestyle of state-determined seedy sex interpolated with lavish culture, a reality for some gay men in the 1960s, is not just memorialised in The Act, but cleverly compared against the strange currents of today.
The audience laugh as Baldwin plays a present-day gay man planning a dinner party, explaining the dual natures of each expected guest, but a dark after taste lingers. Gay sex has been legally sound for decades, but is our culture congealed into a shameful mindset?
We are no longer judicially labelled as inverts, and most of us have found the lavatory exit, but, as a societal group, are we still in some kind of abyss?
Matthew Baldwin is masterful in this neat production that takes a well-documented moment in history and shines new lights on it in a way that only theatre can.
Go and see The Act for an hour of laughter, fear and thought-provoking satire. Having been nominated for two Off West End awards already, the chances of seeing Baldwin in such an intimate venue are evidently numbered. This is a Ben Whishaw moment to be seized upon.
The Act runs at The Ovalhouse theatre until October 26. Tickets are £14 / £8 concessions. To book or for more information, click here.
Words: Jack Cullen (@jackcullenuk)
Photo credit: Robert Workman