As Is****+ (Trafalgar Studios 2)

Posted: July 4, 2015 in Theatre

As IsThis review was originally written for The Public Reviews:

Snippets from radio broadcasts spanning 35 years precede the performance of Andrew Keates’ revival of William M Hoffman’s play, giving a perspective of how times have changed. An American voice reports solemnly that a “rare pneumonia” has struck the San Francisco gay community, followed immediately by Nigel Farage proclaiming that 60% of new HIV patients in the UK are foreign nationals. Tagged “the first AIDS play”, Hoffman’s work is set in New York in the early 1980s, a time when a diagnosis of HIV positive was viewed as a death sentence. In a sense, the play is “As Was”, but the disease has not been consigned merely to history or the Third World. HIV may be treatable, but it is not curable. It is preventable, but its spread is not contained. Keates, an HIV/AIDS campaigner, is linking his production to various initiatives aimed at raising awareness and encouraging preventative action. Looked at in the context of a health campaign, something dry and preachy could have been expected rather that what we actually get – a feast of irreverent comedy, generating more laugh-out-loud moments than it is reasonable to hope for in 70 minutes of theatre. Hoffman’s work can be summed up as a short, comic precursor to Angels in America, a series of very funny sketches joined together by scenes of serious reflection and emotion. The play begins with Rich (Steven Webb), a writer and Saul (David Poyner), a photographer parting company and dividing their joint assets, including the cat. Calling their relationship “a marriage” seems prescient, their decision to sell their Apple Corporation stock less so. Shortly afterwards, Rich develops the first symptoms of AIDS and, in a non-linear progression, the story tells us how the disease brings the couple back together. Webb gives a superb display of wavering defiance, moving from carefree playfulness to angry indignation, resigned despair and finally hope. Poyner’s Saul is equally heroic in his unfaltering devotion, rather resembling a pampering Jewish mother and advocating a solid, if boring, relationship as something to fall back on when times get hard. With mordant humour becoming their lifeblood, they make a convincing and touching odd couple. Jane Lowe as a whisky-swilling, sardonic hospice worker also stands out in a cast of eight. Keates uses the small space to good advantage, particularly in lively early scenes – a chaotic disco, a bath house orgy – demonstrating the promiscuity, fuelled by light drugs and alcohol, for which such a heavy price was paid. Later, two camp helpline workers (Dino Fetscher and Russell Morton) merge with the audience, dispensing advice to callers, along with hilarious, bitchy asides. Little separates tragedy from comedy in this play. Medical advances may have made this groundbreaking work look dated and led to it becoming unfairly overlooked. Here it gets the revival that it deserves in a production that is both funny and poignant.

Performance date: 3 July 2015

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