One of the best, most fun, and most memorable, of my theatre trips last year was to see The Act at Ovalhouse. The Act was created and written by Matthew Baldwin and Thomas Hescott and explores the lives of gay men in England in the 1960s, focusing on the decriminalisation of gay sex in 1967. I thought The Act was bold, innovative and unique.
I was delighted when I heard The Act was transferring to the Trafalgar Studios for a 5 week run as I felt the play deserved a West End run where it could reach a wider audience.
I caught up with Matthew Baldwin, co-creator, co-writer and performer of The Act, as it comes to the end of its West End run, to talk about how and why The Act came about, what he hopes it will achieve, and the reaction it is getting.
The Act was originally commissioned as part of Ovalhouse’s Counterculture Season and its aim was to explore gay culture in the 1960s. Hescott and Baldwin were initially looking at a piece that contrasted then and now, the 1960s and the present day, to highlight the progress made on LGBT rights.
Hescott and Baldwin started exploring the stories of gay men from the 1960s. The first key element of The Act is the characters featured in the show. Baldwin’s background was character studies, often suffused with humour, and so Hescott and Baldwin felt they could develop a strong piece based on a range of characters telling their personal stories.
Baldwin explained that all the characters featured in the show, including Edna May and The Duchess, were based on real people. He developed the characters after speaking to older gay men, around the scene in the 1960s, who told him about real people, real incidents, and real personal histories. Polari, which features heavily in the show, remains a living language amongst older gay men who use it with real relish and playfulness.
Matthews, the central character, is an ordinary gay man in the 1960s, trying to live a normal life. One day Matthews decides to go in search of others like himself, he discovers a thriving underground LGBT community, and subsequently love. Sadly this proves to be his undoing. Matthews is an everyman; the audience sees themselves reflected in him, understanding and empathising with him and his experiences.
Matthews’ trial, which is a central part of The Act, was based on the trial of Peter Wildeblood, who was convicted of homosexuality in 1954 and imprisoned for 18 months for his crime. A crucial part of the evidence leading to Wildeblood’s conviction was a series of passionate love letters that he wrote to his lover Edward McNally. Wildeblood was one of the first men in the UK to publicly declare himself a homosexual. In The Act, Matthews writes a series of love letters to his lover which are later used in evidence against him in court.
The second key element of The Act is the Parliamentary debates that took place as the Sexual Offences Bill progressed through Parliament. When Hescott and Baldwin read these debates in Hansard, they realised these could form the backbone of the play. The speeches are verbatim although they have been edited down.
I asked Baldwin how reading those speeches made him feel as a gay man. MPs and Peers were discussing homosexuality not behind closed doors, but in public and in Parliament, and these debates were reported in the media. Baldwin felt the views expressed by MPs and Peers were ignorant, ill-informed and patronizing, but he was also struck by the fact that the case for the decriminalisation of homosexuality was won on intellectual grounds within Parliament. Whilst some of the discussions, and the views held, are deeply offensive, Baldwin felt it was worth presenting these debates verbatim as they are an important part of LGBT history showing how key LGBT rights were won. They also highlight how beliefs and attitudes have changed and how much progress has been made.
The third key element of The Act is the songs. They are integral to the piece because they provide variety, fun and some much needed light relief. Hescott discovered the songs, which were recorded by Camp Records, a record label based out of California in the 1960s, specialising in gay-themed novelty records and singles. The songs comically portrayed the world of US gay subculture, often relying on stereotypes, gay slang, and saucy double entendres for their comic effect. Hescott and Baldwin simply used the existing songs although they have Anglicised some of the lyrics.
Given that Baldwin delivers a pitch-perfect performance, I was surprised to find that this was the first time he had done a one-man show. Baldwin described how he was terrified on the opening night at Ovalhouse, even to the extent of plotting his escape route out of the theatre if things went horribly wrong! The unique challenges of a one-man show, as opposed to an ensemble piece, were that you were carrying the show, there were no fellow actors to help you out if you dried up or got stuck, and the sheer volume of lines you had to learn.
Baldwin described performing at the Trafalgar Studios in the West End as a “dream come true” and something that he had never expected to be doing. It meant a great deal to him personally to be performing The Act at the Trafalgar Studios in the smaller space at the same time as Another Country is playing in the main auditorium. Another Country is set in an English public school in the 1930s, is loosely based on the life of the spy Guy Burgess (renamed Guy Bennett in the play), and explores homosexuality and Marxism.
I asked Baldwin if he and Hescott had a particular aim and ambition in mind when they were creating and developing The Act. Baldwin was very clear that he had wanted to express his unreserved gratitude to the older generation, those who had gone before like Wildeblood, and to acknowledge and recognize this important part of LGBT history. LGBT people have suffered in the past to win the rights and privileges that LGBT people enjoy today. LGBT people today were “standing on the shoulders of giants” and reaping the rewards of the work done by previous generations.
Responses to The Act had been very powerful, both at Ovalhouse and at the Trafalgar Studios. Both venues have been small and intimate and Baldwin is able to witness people’s reactions to the piece and see how much they are affected. There has been a wealth of positive comments across social media channels, and Baldwin has had many letters left for him at the stage door where older people have put down in writing how much it meant to them to see themselves represented on stage and to have their stories told. Baldwin has been touched and moved by the response to The Act.
The Act ends tomorrow (Saturday 29 March) but Matthew Baldwin and Thomas Hescott are collaborating on a new project, “Coming Out”, which will again focus on storytelling and feature a range of diverse and international coming out stories from across the LGBT community. The play will be an ensemble piece and is due to open in August.