“A musical feels like a fun Trojan horse for having important conversations,” says Ellice Stevens, the co-writer and a cast member of After the Act (A Section 28 Musical). “It’s emotional and serious, but it’s also camp and dramatic. Yes it’s about legislation, but it’s also about Margaret Thatcher in a huge wig prancing about the stage.”
After the Act arrives at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe 20 years after Section 28 was repealed in England and Wales (the act was repealed earlier, after 17 years, in Scotland). Stevens, alongside her co-writer and the show’s director Billy Barrett, were both in school during Section 28, which was a piece of legislation that prohibited the “promotion of homosexuality” by local authorities, such as schools.
“We interviewed over 30 students, teachers, activists who were all impacted by the legislation,” says Barrett. “We set those interviews along with archive material such as parliament debates around legislation to an original musical score which references ‘80s pop music of the time. There’s Margaret Thatcher’s famous speech which led to Section 28 set to a Bonnie Tyler-esque power ballad, and tabloid news headlines about the AIDS crisis and fear mongering turned into a sort of Bronski Beat’s ‘Smalltown Boy’.”
Although After the Act is a historical musical set in the late 20th century, Barrett and Stevens see similarities in contemporary conversations and politics around LGBTQ+ rights. “Since we’ve started making the show, it’s become more relevant,” says Stevens. “It doesn’t feel wildly dissimilar to conversations happening now. We were making After the Act when the Gender Recognition Reform (Scotland) Bill got blocked, for example, and now there are conversations happening around drag storytimes. It feels very relevant and that’s why we’re excited about bringing it to the Fringe and the potential of international audiences seeing it.”
Public, photo courtesy of Pleasance
Like Barrett and Stevens, the creative team behind another musical exploring LGBTQ+ experiences at the Fringe were similarly inspired by the potential accessibility of the musical form. “Public – The Musical is a pop-rock musical with original music that follows four strangers who get trapped in a gender neutral bathroom for an hour,” explains the show’s producer, Hannah Sands. “They’re four very different people who would normally never choose to share a space with each other. The musical explores the joys and challenges we all face when we step outside and into society; the masks we put on and the roles we fall into.”
In recent years, gender neutral public toilets have also become a target for transphobia and homophobia, something at the forefront of Public’s creative team’s minds. “We want to share with more people that these places exist and that they’re not something to be intimidated by or afraid of,” says Sands. “If anything they should become an accessible and open part of the structures of our society. We hope by sharing this story in an entertaining and accessible way, we can introduce and open up that idea to more audiences.”
For Public’s makers, the musical form was the perfect way to connect audiences with serious ideas around identity struggles, the climate crisis and the rising cost of living that are explored in the show. “I think we’re too quick to roll our eyes at musicals,” says Sands. “Like they’re too commercial or too easy. But audiences love them and that’s not something to be scoffed at; it’s something to be celebrated. I think it’s extraordinary to not only offer an audience the chance to laugh, but also the chance to care about something that they didn’t even think that they had an emotional attachment to – and I think that’s the gift of musicals.”