Beirut – The Park Theatre, London

Writer: Alan Bowne

Director: Robin Lefevre

Reviewer: Richard Maguire

The poster for this play is deliberately provocative; in shadowy velvet tones suggesting, initially, it’s an advert for red wine, a woman’s tongue seems poised to lick a man’s buttock. But look closer, and on his skin is the tattooed letter P. It stands for Blood Positive in this dark and sexy dystopian thriller.

Torch, played with a certain amiable pig-headedness by Robert Rees, has been quarantined in New York’s Lower East Side in what seems like the near future. Outside the quarantined quarter – so unruly and dangerous it’s nicknamed Beirut, a city at war in the ‘80s – sex is prohibited and pregnant women are shot in an effort to stop an a virulent epidemic. Blood Positive people are allowed to have sex, however, as they are dead already.

One night, Torch’s erstwhile and Blood Negative girlfriend Blue (Louisa Connolly-Burnham) breaks into his dilapidated apartment and it seems that she’s planning to stay. With patrol helicopters whirring outside, will Torch be able to resist Blue’s wily charms and stop himself from infecting her? Beirutis a modern day Romeo and Juliet, with Torch and Blue coming from different tribes, but it’s not quite clear who’s from the living and who’s from the dead.

It comes as no surprise to learn that this one-act play was written in the middle of the AIDS epidemic, and indeed its writer, Alan Bowne, died of HIV/AIDS in 1989. Usually plays about AIDS feature gay men, but Beirutis an AIDS play for heterosexuals. In the 1980s, gay men were advised not to have sex on the premise that celibacy was the best protection against the virus. AIDS activists protested against this prescription claiming that abstinence was infeasible, and that safe sex be promoted instead. Out of this came the seminal book How to Have Sex in an Epidemic, but in Beirut there is no manual for Torch and Blue, so they come up with their own ways of making love.

Despite a narrative that circles rather than drives forward, Beirutis an intelligent play exploring how human sex is. Connolly-Burnham and Rees ensure that sex remains pivotal, their bodies aching for human contact as much as their faces. This long tease looks exquisite on Liz Ascroft’s set, a messy tenement apartment with graffiti on its walls. The set extends to the ceiling too, a rickety floor ready for someone to put their foot through and Leigh Porter’s clever lights shine down as if through the cracks.

Despite the sex, Beirutis a serious play and under Robin Lefevre directorship it’s given the treatment it deserves. As Blue exclaims, ‘there’s power in being sick.’ This production proves it.

Runs until 7 July 2018 | Image: Contributed

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Dark and sexy

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The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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