The Act

Thomas Hescott and Matthew Baldwin
Ovalhouse, Thomas Hescott and Matthew Baldwin
Oval House Theatre

The joint creation of director Thomas Hescott and actor Matthew Baldwin, The Act is a solo performance that looks back to homosexual life in the 1960s and before.

It begins as a somewhat halting kind of confessional by its central character who describes himself as “a small cog in Whitehall”, a pin-stripe suited, old school-tie, minor civil servant in the great government machine.

Confessional, it certainly is for this is the personal story of a male homosexual when his sexual activities were on the wrong side of the law and could put him in prison. While many moved in a homosexual subculture and some found risk added frisson to sexual activity, discovery could still be shaming.

This personal story, of man who shares the name of the actor, covers his early sexual awakening, schoolboy thrills and an adult acquaintance with queer clubs and “cottaging”. It is in a toilet in Leicester Square that this image of respectability meets a piece of rough trade who becomes a major attachment.

Part of this element of the story is told through a series of letters, all from Matthew to this man, which leads to a near-tragic ending. Instead, Matthew blossoms into a confident new self awareness. In some ways it is a reflection of the development of a modern gay identity in microcosm but the skill of Hescott and Baldwin is to interweave this personal progress with other material.

One element is the insertion of conversations with the waitress in a regularly patronised restaurant where Matthew is always being challenged, another a series of tart cabaret numbers, all set to familiar tunes, that encapsulate sexual encounters, but the other main component is the delivery of speeches made in the House of Commons debate that followed the Wolfenden Report which recommended the decriminalisation of homosexual acts.

Matthew Baldwin switches from character to character, from intimacy to public presentation with deft skill and so holds the attention that this 80-minute show passes extraordinarily quickly. It is a tour-de-force of skillful playing. Hescott’s direction keeps a delicate balance between a camp sensitivity and heartfelt feeling in a show that is brilliantly funny at the same time as being deadly serious.

It is staged against a roll of photographer’s background paper on which illustrator Gavin Dobson has sketched a montage of romantic gay portraits and mildly erotic duos. Plonked centre stage is a WC pedestal as a constant reminder of the underground illicit encounters of fifties and sixties gay life, and it is sensitively lit by Ed Locke.

It doesn’t matter whether you are straight or gay, this is a performance worth seeing.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton