Pros: A captivating and engaging look at LGBT culture throughout the 80’s-00s, told within the walls of a South London school.
Cons: Not every character’s development is clear or well-rounded at the play’s conclusion.
Next Lesson is an interesting and unique look at LGBT culture, identity and public thought throughout the 80’s, 90’s, and 00;s. The play consists of a series of scenes taking place over consecutive years but all set within the walls of the same school in South East London. Over the years the teachers and the students debate, flirt, mourn, argue and strive for LGBT acceptance within the school and its community.
The piece mainly follows Michael, a gay teen student at the school, as he reaches adulthood and then returns to the school to teach. Along the way, we view scenes of other characters debating, discussing and loving as time travels on and opinions around homosexuality change.
The play starts in the late 1980s and moves through time; stopping every few years for a look at an element of either Michael’s journey through life as a gay man, or a look at how homosexuality is reacted to or referred to in the school during that year. Over the passing of time we meet some characters who are present for a fleeting scene and others who reappear later and also seem to evolve over time.
Each scene is an interesting snapshot of a different time period. As the play focuses around Michael’s journey, his scenes seem to be the ones that have the greatest emotional depth. His relationship with his mother is absolutely heartbreaking: including the real-life IRA bombing of the Admiral Duncan pub in Soho within his story is a strong, if not devastating, way of adding in topical relevance for what his community was experiencing during the late 1990’s.
The temporal changes are nostalgic for those of us who remember being at school in the nineties. There’s a very amusing and light-hearted exchange between two gay teens in a rugby dressing room, which is chock-full of joke references for the mid to late twenties crowd. There are some genuinely funny scenes in this production – my clear favourite being when Anne Odeke brings mouthy and hysterically funny pupil Chloe to life as she’s being half-heartedly chastised for standing up for herself as an LGBT teen.
One drawback is that although the cast do well to bring to life a variety of characters throughout the different time periods, some actors play rather similar roles in different scenes; it’s often difficult to tell whether we are witnessing the evolution of the same character or being introduced to a new – yet similar – one. In most cases, the dialogue wisely ensures names are being used to help in understanding, but the final scene (which is lovely and poignant and includes the full cast) doesn’t make it clear as to exactly which characters are present.
Overall, it’s a good production – particularly when it comes to examining Michael’s development and his struggles to overcome tragedy – but I’m not sure if even his journey has fully evolved enough when the final curtain comes down. He does well to overcome tragedy and move on, but he seems to have yet to embrace the idea of forgiveness (although it could be argued that perhaps his mother does not deserve it), and I wonder if the story could have been extended by a couple of years further.
It’s a lively show which brings to life both tragedy and comedy and moves well throughout the ages. You get a real feel for the community and the school in which the show is set and it’s a really lovely look at LGBT themes across several decades in latter 20th century Britain.
Author: Chris Woodley
Director: Andrew Beckett
Producer: Hyphen Theatre Company
Booking Until: 25 October 2015
Box Office: 020 7619 6868
Booking Link: https://www.pleasance.co.uk/event/next-lesson-0#overview