REVIEW: Next Lesson (Above The Stag Theatre) ★★★★

2018 marks 30 years since Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Government launched its controversial legislation that came to be known as ‘Section 28’, which banned the ‘promotion’ of homosexuality by local authorities and in schools across Britain. ‘Next Lesson’ is the poignant creation of playwright Chris Woodley, a play set over a number of years following the law’s emergence and how it affected both staff and students within the British education system. We are led through these years with Michael (Sam Goodchild) as our focal point, witnessing several vital moments such as the ‘coming out’ conversation with Mum and through to unimaginable heartbreak.

To put it plainly: we had here five exquisite actors. Aside from Goodchild, who played our protagonist throughout, the other actors had a minimum of three characters each to portray. Direction from Andrew Beckett was highly effective in ensuring that every character was distinct from the other, and the actors moved with well-rehearsed confidence between each scene change. I was genuinely moved by several of the scenes involving Stephanie Willson, whose ability to capture and deliver raw emotion is nothing short of skilful, particularly as Michael’s morally conflicted mother. Florence Odumosu is particularly versatile, delighting us with her rambunctious portrayal of teenage Chloe, and switching quickly to mature teacher Jen, struggling with her desire to keep her same-sex relationship under wraps. The men of the production – Sam Goodchild, Daniel Forrester and Samuel Lawrence – had what can only be described as an infectious energy about them, working so well together onstage that you may suspect they have been working together for years.

The set was particularly effective, with bold sports hall lines and an iconic teacher’s desk that are reminiscent of all typical British schools. Having the year written on the chalkboard at the back was helpful in reminding us of the changing timeframe, and the playing of era-relevant pop music in between each scene was highly effective in evoking the 80s and 90s throwback atmosphere (also: no sloppiness between music and light effects – always makes such a difference!).

The story itself was easy to follow, with a variety of sub-plots existing around Michael’s overarching story. I was glad to see both lesbian and gay stories included in the narrative, and the theme of self-expression – of how honest you can and should be able to be in your professional life – was explored to interesting lengths throughout. I felt that there could have been a longer scene devoted to explaining the sudden tragedy in the middle of the play, as this felt somewhat rushed over, and the context of the event could have been better explained. However, the balance of Woodley’s writing alongside Beckett’s direction in terms of comedic value and serious themes is fantastic – juggling funny with sombre content is not an easy feat, but they achieved it with complete sophistication.

Unfortunately, despite the play’s many strengths, my attention was torn away at several times due to the distractions coming from the second theatre just a few metres away. The Stag recently moved to a new premises, and whilst it looks fantastic and boasts two theatre spaces, it is sadly not well insulated against the noise pollution that shows running consecutively produces. A few very key and sombre moments of ‘Next Lesson’ could not be appreciated to their full potential due to the rather loud singing that could be heard from the second theatre, which did somewhat spoil the effect. Whilst this is not a criticism of this production itself, the Stag would benefit enormously from looking into ways to minimise the noise disruption so that its audiences are not distracted.

This short production touches on a number of key issues that affected countless people within the LGBT+ community (and their loved ones), not just in the wake of Section 28 but throughout history. ‘Next Lesson’ is a educational piece devoted to the examination of this vital part in legal discrimination’s history, and will be eye-opening to many who perhaps did not know about this law and its damaging legacy. A highly skilled cast and comical dialogue will leave you feeling satisfied and content inside – and immensely thankful for the stamping out of that heinous law.

Reviewed by Laura Evans


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