Review: The Act, Ovalhouse

“It is a topic that deserves serious debate”<

To celebrate its fiftieth birthday, the Ovalhouse theatre has commissioned a season of work named Counterculture 50, exploring the possibilities of fringe theatre to inhabit a wider cultural frame of reference than the mainstream, something in which this theatre has a strong tradition whilst remaining aware that it is not always the easiest path to tread. The season contains 5 pieces of live performance work, one for each decade of the Ovalhouse’s existence, and representing the 1960s in the smaller upstairs studio is The Act.

Devised by Thomas Hescott and Matthew Baldwin, The Act is a one man show that delves into the lives of the gay community at a crucial time of legal and societal change by weaving together strands of story, song and reportage. The experiences of a gay accountant from Derbyshire as he ventures tentatively into the shadowy gay life of 60s London, from bars full of characters like the vibrant Edna Mae to the sexy bits of rough trade he picks up in the toilets of Leicester Square, are interspersed with extracts from House of Commons debates as homosexual law reform rose to the top of the agenda in light of the pioneering Wolfenden Report.

From beginning that seem deceptively slight, there’s a real eloquence to the way in which the narratives are pieced together, the mannered reserve of the political contrasting with the emotional intimacy of the personal as Baldwin glides effortlessly between the various personae with a minimum of visible effort and a maximum of voluble charm. Whether reminiscing about schoolboy crushes on rugby playing friends, evincing the difficulties in converting furtive sexual encounters into something more or bantering with the audience in cabaret-like moments, he balances the directness that comes from such an intimate space with a gentleness that reminds of the everyday nature of so much of what is being told. But the production gathers momentum too, with increasingly deeply touching vignettes coalescing into a powerfully affecting final third.

The slow implosion of a relationship built on lust told through the reading of just one side of the correspondence between the lovers; the lyrical deftness in portraying the simultaneous thrill and danger of cruising for anonymous sex through the medium of rhyming couplets; and the tender yet passionately staunch defence of the right of an old queen to be just that is surely one of the most life-affirmingly gorgeous moments in a theatre so far this year. Gavin Dobson’s illustrations adorn a simple set in which Hescott directs his leading man with a fluid grace and a clear-sighted vision of what can appreciated by anyone, gay or straight as a piece of theatre, a piece of history, a piece of life.

Running time: 70 minutes (without interval)
Booking until 2nd February

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