To some, history is a search for reinforcement, basically about people like ourselves: theatre as a lifestyle accessory. To others, such as LP Hartley, who famously wrote that “the past is a foreign country, they do things differently there”, it is an act of empathy and imagination, a journey into often strange mindsets. Thomas Hescott (actor) and Matthew Baldwin (director), who have devised ‘The Act’, belong emphatically to the latter school, and their work is incomparably the richer for it.
‘The Act’ refers to the Sexual Offences Act of 1967, which partially decriminalised sex between men in a bastardisation of the Wolfenden Report. But it also refers to the act of buggery, the central desire of our narrator and an obsession of the opponents of law reform. (William Rees-Davis, MP: “Do we believe that we ought to change the fundamental laws of sodomy and buggery in this country? That is the real issue.”)
The play is framed by the opening speech of Kenneth Robinson, the psychiatrist and Labour MP who introduced the first attempt in 1960 in Parliament to implement Wolfenden. His tone is apologetic (“this subject is one which is distasteful and even repulsive to many people.. the generally accepted view is that it is a disability”), and it’s a measure of the distance we have travelled in 53 years, that it draws sniggers from the younger members of the audience; you think, With friends like these, who needs enemies? But then you have to remember that this was a time when many people refused to even mention the subject in the presence of women.
The speech is a device to give a context to the life journey of the central character, from cheerful randiness at a boarding school to an adult world of rough trade, cottages, sleazy bars and blackmail. And love. The defining event of the life, and the play, is falling in love at the age of thirteen. “My eyes were raised to a distant and beautiful horizon, and I was anointed with possibility.” Paradoxically, law reform is not about buggery after all; many boys do it and emerge into happy heterosexual adulthood. No, it is about creating the space in which to love, for those whom the emotion has branded with the self-definition, “I am a homosexual.”
Clearly the creators have done their homework, and not just into Hansard. Whatever the other sources – psychiatric case studies, court cases, the film ‘Victim’ – the script and performance capture exactly the tone and language of the times, the longing for an impossibly idealised Other, the physical need to be dominated by a strong man, the self-disgust, the diffidence, the naive enthusiasm which falls into the arms of a blackmailer. Thomas Hemscott’s direct-to-audience performance is utterly charming – hesitant, almost apologetic, self-deprecating, funny – and, in the final moments, moving. What the play lacks is a denouement, a conclusion, but as a character study and a picture of the times, it is totally convincing.
This is the opening play in a two-month celebratory season for the theatre’s fiftieth anniversary: ten plays on the theme of counter-culture, half of which explore the Queer half-century. If “The Act” can be taken as a benchmark, the others too will be well worth seeking out.