he AIDS Epidemic of the 1980s is the sensitive issue at the heart of this staging of Tony Kushner’s Angels In America, presented by EUTCo as their Northcott Production 2016. The play follows two couples, a Mormon husband and wife and two fairly openly gay men, as they deal with the realities of life, the brutality of the effects of AIDS and drugs. As they deal with everything going on around them, the colourful collection of characters that they interact with seem to get more extreme as tensions rise and relationships are tested to the limits.
The four leads are captivating to watch. Ollie McLellan and Henry Smith as Louis Ironson and Prior Walter respectively, capture you from their opening scene, which is both sensitive and heart breaking as the issue of AIDS is brought to the forefront of the scene. The two never let go out of the audience’s attention from start to finish, whether together or apart, and it is the breakdown of their relationship, and Prior’s health as he succumbs to his AIDS, that is at the heart of the play and what really creates lumps in the audience’s throats. McLellan and Smith rip your hearts out as their intermittent scenes with Joe and Harper jog you back to the harsh reality they face and the lack of grip they both hold on reality and their relationship. McLellan describes Louis as having a personality ‘that goes from one extreme to another’, his character gets out and sees the world where Prior remains trapped in his AIDS, confining himself to the hospital, which further isolates the two men from each other.
Nick Cope and Sophy Dexter as Mormons Joe and Harper Pitt bring another issue to the forefront of their storyline as Joe struggles with his closeted homosexuality and tries to reason with Harper who is agoraphobic and Valium addicted. They both struggle to keep what remains of their faith alive while coming to terms with who they are. While they aren’t as immediately likeable as Prior and Louis, the characters grow on you, especially Joe as he grows more desperate to refute his sexuality, throughout the play. The two actors capture the strain on their relationship with a delicate accuracy and as Joe tries to come to terms with his lot in life and Harper refuses to accept her addiction, it is painful to know what needs to be done and not seeing it done. The similarities between the two couples are evident, Prior and Harper trap themselves inside their minds using their illness and addiction as an excuse whereas Louis and Joe try to deny and escape their situations by immersing themselves in other worlds.
The supporting cast offer some touching moments in the glimpses we get of them. Jason Pallari as Roy Cohn, a lawyer with AIDS who refuses to let his sexual habits mar his reputation, brings intensity to the role, which admittedly sometimes results in blurring his words together, but he isn’t the only one as the whole cast have had to master the New York accent. Danny Baker and Calum Wragg-Smith as Prior’s ghosts bring a mad light comic relief to the third act, which is much needed, and well placed. It is perhaps a shame that we do not see much of many of the supporting cast as the directors have chosen to move away from the traditional casting of just eight actors to play the 16+ characters that are in the show, but what they do have to play with, they play with well.
Directors Caroline Lang and Isobel Knight have tackled the subject of AIDS with delicacy, letting the text place the issues as bluntly as it does in the audience’s laps at the beginning, and letting the emotional reaction from both characters and audience help drive the play. They have let the seeming hysteria surrounding AIDS that grows through the play, flesh out naturally and it is clear to see that both cast and directors have approached the topic with sensitivity but also have not been afraid to look at it head on. Dexter points out that ‘AIDS is something you don’t really learn about at school…it’s a really interesting part of history that just doesn’t get enough attention paid to it’ and the research that has gone into this production is very evident by the passion with which each actor approaches the character.
A preview doesn’t reveal everything and from the descriptions given to me by the directors about the pieces of set and tech that were missing from the run, I am more than convinced this will be a cracker of a show. It handles topics that are still relevant, despite the play being set in the 80s, and spell binding performances from both lead and supporting actors make this a treat to watch from start to finish.
Make sure you don’t miss out on the show, playing at the Exeter Northcott Theatre Wednesday 20th – Saturday 23rd January 2016. Tickets can be purchased on their website.