This review was originally written for The Public Reviews: http://www.thepublicreviews.com
Coming so soon after the London revival of My Night With Reg, Paul Emelion Daly’s new play brings home how much things have changed in 20 years. Back in the 90s, Kevin Elyot presented HIV/AIDS as a killer lurking behind the scenes whose name was not to be spoken. Thanks to medical advances, mortality is not an issue in Rise Like A Phoenix, which shows us five gay men, all diagnosed HIV positive, who discuss their condition openly and try to come to terms with the stigma attached to it, their mental traumas and the side effects of medication. Like …Reg, this play is, essentially, a comedy, albeit a much less subtle one. Estate agent Hector (Reed Stokes) is hosting a party for his ex, Alan (Lewis Rae), a school teacher, at the flat they used to share. The flat is dingy, dusty (sure to aggravate Alan’s OCD) and decorated with dozens of images of Judy Garland and similar divas. Alan brings along his new partner, Eddie (Jonny Dickens) a painter and decorator who has recently parted from his wife. For reasons that are never made fully clear, Hector appears, to everyone’s surprise, as “Fanny Sparkles” in an evening gown and ill-fitting wig. Much of the first act is taken up with a camp comedy of manners. If the characters are rather stereotypical, it hardly matters, because the script is witty and Tim McArthur’s production moves things along crisply. However, whenever the play steps away from comedy, it hits the rocks. Emelion Daly is walking a difficult tightrope in trying to be upbeat about HIV and, at the same time, avoiding giving out the wrong health messages. He struggles and the shifts from comedy to drama always feel awkward and unconvincing. Things are not helped by the writer and the actors creating characters in the triangle that we can easily laugh at but not really care about. The problem is seen most vividly in a long, tedious scene at the beginning of Act II in which Hector and Alan try to sort out past differences; at one point Alan asks Hector, still in full drag, how he can take him seriously when he is dressed like that. The sentiment must be echoed fully by the audience. When these characters have been set up as figures of broad fun, it is very difficult to suddenly take any of them seriously. Fortunately, compensation comes with some delicious comedy, particularly from the fourth and fifth characters. The hyper-anxious Pippin Valjean (Conleth Kane) is, as his adopted name suggests, fanatical about musicals and comes straight to the party having broken up with his boyfriend in the interval of Wicked, which he has seen around 2,000 times. His way of dealing with his HIV+ diagnosis was to rush to a matinee of Les Miserables and he manages to slot a line from a show song into every conversation. Dimitrios Raptidis has a whale of a time going completely over the top as Gucci, a Colombian masseur. Acting as Hector’s “maid” for the evening and wearing hot pants to serve the cocktails, his wry observations and comic asides are amongst the highlights of a production that is at its best when it sets out to be funny, but falters when it does not.
Performance date: 10 April 2015