Marking 30 years since the introduction of Section 28 – the law that banned the “promotion of homosexuality” in UK schools – Chris Woodley’s Next Lesson charts the progress of gay schoolboy Michael, who later works as a teacher at his old south London school before the clause’s repeal in 2003.
The play demonstrates why the legislation, prompted by the Aids crisis and fears of the erosion of ‘traditional family values’, proved counterproductive. In restricting teachers’ ability to acknowledge LGBT+ relationships, it reduced their capacity to talk to students about their sexual orientation or provide appropriate sex education.
With a nuanced performance from Sam Goodchild as Michael, the story is interspersed with vignettes illustrating the prevailing attitudes of the time. An affecting scene where he comes out to his mother – a study in anguished stoicism from Stephanie Willson – contrasts with disquiet in the staffroom. Furtive glances and stolen kisses convey the paranoid atmosphere of a time when homophobia was allowed to flourish in our schools.
The hard-working ensemble deftly conjures a host of teachers and students – lesbian, gay and straight – though they sometimes feel fleetingly underdeveloped. Especially vivid is Florence Odumosu as mouthy, out-and-proud schoolgirl Chloe, behind whose bravado lurks an unspoken affection for her gay teacher.
Director Andrew Beckett’s straightforward schoolroom set, streaked with primary colours, provides a suitably institutional backdrop as the passing years are chalked up on the board, accompanied by pop hits of the day.
Next Lesson depicts a difficult era for LGBT+ people in the UK and the relief at its passing. Yet at only 75 minutes, it feels ripe for expansion, allowing for a deeper discussion of the issues.