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The Act, Ovalhouse – Review

Thomas Hescott & Matthew Baldwin
Directed by Thomas Hescott

Pros: A clever and complex construction dovetailing fact with fiction to great effect and an admirable performance by Matthew Baldwin.

Cons: Not really an official ‘con’ but if you expect this to attract a largely gay audience you’d be wrong. This is a piece of theatre for everyone.

Our Verdict: An entertaining, witty, poignant and illuminating piece examining what it was like to be gay before decriminalisation.

Courtesy of Ovalhouse

The Ovalhouse is a very relaxed venue housing two performance stages with an open, airy café/bar/lounge area on the ground floor. For fifty years they have prided themselves on pushing social and political boundaries and so it was the perfect home for The Act.

The audience is presented with an interesting stage set, consisting of a backdrop of black and white illustrations by Gavin Dobson depicting a cornucopia of sexuality, plus a toilet at centre stage.

Matthew Baldwin enters and immediately breaks the ice with the expectant audience by apparently sending a text from his phone. He explains that he’s arranging a dinner party with his partner so they can catch up with some old friends and try out their new Ottolenghi cookbook.

It’s a great start to a skilfully guided tour of snapshots all seamlessly linked by the wonderfully talented and entertaining Mr Baldwin. We drop in on the House of Commons and hear verbatim speeches about the Wolfenden Report and the potential decriminalisation of homosexuality (eventually passed by parliament in 1967). We are given musical cabaret-style interludes with a particularly good rendition of ‘Fanny Boy’. And we follow the story of an ordinary man; a dutiful, loving son working as a civil servant in London. Through him we are provided with an insight into what life was like if you were gay prior to 1967. He tells us of his initial teenage encounters with much hilarity, the loneliness of living and working in London and being ‘different’, and the irresistible urges to seek forbidden love and lust in the darkness of the Dilly.

We witness his desperation and fear as he hangs around in public toilets and visits seedy basement bars in Soho. We meet Edna May, a gloriously over-the-top, Quentin Crisp style character with Polari chatter. Through written correspondence we follow as the excitement of a new love soon becomes twisted into blackmail as our protagonist is brought to court to account for his illegal and perverse activities.

Matthew Baldwin is captivating for the duration on the show. It’s an amazing feat for one person to hold the attention so effectively whilst weaving together a patchwork of characters. He pulls it all off with humour, sensitivity and pathos and manages to illuminate a past era in society that is all too easy to forget in the current permissive climate.

I didn’t know that there was opposition within the gay community to decriminalisation and I certainly didn’t know that the Church of England was so keen to see changes in the laws. So often we are presented with gay clichés – Kenneth Williams, Julian Clary and Graham Norton – with all their Carry On style double entendres. This evening shows that face but also takes you behind the mask, to the heartache that is usually kept hidden from view.

Please feel free to leave your thoughts and opinions in the comments section below!

The Act runs at Ovalhouse until 26th October 2013.
Box Office: 020 7582 7680 or book online at http://www.ovalhouse.com/whatson/booktickets/Act2

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