Book and Lyrics: Bill Russell
Music: Janet Hood
Director: Bryan Hodgson
Reviewer: Richard Maguire
Ghosts are a staple of AIDS texts. At the end of LongtimeCompanion, one of the first films to address the AIDS crisis, survivors are greeted on the beach by those they have lost to the virus. In The Inheritance, the most recent play documenting the epidemic, ghosts populate the stage to emotional effect. The presence of ghosts in these texts ensures that we haven’t forgotten or forsaken the dead. Elegies For Angels, Punks and Raging Queens, first seen in 1989, also relies on ghosts; here the dead relate their stories in rhyming couplets. The Union Theatre’s revival brings mixed results.
There are perhaps too many ghosts in Bill Russell and Janet Hood’s song cycle. There are so many monologues from the dead that the show loses its power to move. We never really get to know these people who have died, and whose stories are based on real lives. We meet married men, deceived wives, closeted gay men, out-and-proud gay men, haemophiliacs, drug users, and flamboyant drag queens.
Director Bryan Hodgson undercuts the power of these soliloquies by dramatizing them. If a speaker mentions a father or a lover in their monologue then up jumps one of the cast to silently play that character. This is unnecessarily fussy, and only distracts from the story being told. One woman recounts her journey from high-class prostitution to homelessness, but this narrative features so many dancers and jazz-hands that its focus is lost. Likewise, when the Vietnam veteran tells his story we have every man from the cast marching across the stage. It’s better when the monologues are stripped down; when it’s just one actor on stage.
It’s an ambitious project for The Union Theatre, and features a cast of 16 actors, and two musicians. The set, a kind of light box designed by Justin Williams, looks sleek and modern and can hold all the cast at one time. They dress in modern days clothes, all whites and blues, suggesting that this play is happening in contemporary times. One monologue has obviously been updated, too, and refers to the internet and hook-up apps such as Grindr and Tinder, but it seems an odd decision when innovations such as antiretroviral drugs and PrEP (drugs that inhibit the transmission of HIV/AIDS) are not mentioned.
There’s something very clinical about this revival; everything is too smooth and choreographed, which goes against the messiness of grief and death. Only the monologue by the drag queen, played by Rhys Taylor, subverts expectations. Nevertheless, the young cast work hard, if a little too earnestly at times, and they really shine in the group numbers. In Celebrate, the soulful voice of Marcus Ayton really comes through, and the cast do well with the defeatist Learning to Let Go, and here Jackie Pulford gives it her all.
Elegies For Angels, Punks and Raging Queens was a crucial tool in showing to America how HIV/AIDS was decimating populations in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and therefore it’s always heartening to see the show revived. However, this revival lacks anger and urgency.
Runs until 8 June 2019 | Image: Mark Senior