The 1980s AIDS epidemic and its brutal effects forms the basis of Tony Kushner’s moving Angels in America, and EUTCo’s handling of such a delicate, yet enduringly relevant topic is masterful.
The story follows two couples, Louis (Ollie McLellan) and Prior (Henry Smith), and Joe (Nick Cope) and Harper (Sophy Dexter). Their respective worlds come to a grinding halt when Prior contracts HIV and Joe struggles to come to terms with his closeted homosexuality. All four leads play their roles with exceptional fervour and intensity, with Smith and Dexter standing out especially. Dexter’s humorous, yet tragic depiction of an agoraphobic, Valium-addicted housewife makes the audience painfully aware of her fragility. Smith’s agonising portrayal of Prior’s illness is heightened by his brilliant use of physicality, which is particularly difficult to watch in a captivating scene where Prior chokes and collapses to the floor. Cope plays Harper’s embattled husband Joe, successfully and subtly handling the conflicted relationship between his Mormon faith and his sexuality. This is especially great in a moving scene where he calls his strictly Mormon mother to confess his sexuality, only for her to hang up the phone. Louis’ problematic views and destructive reaction to Prior’s diagnosis don’t make him a very likeable character, yet McLellan plays him in such a way as to emphasise his flawed humanity, which we can all relate to.
Audiences may not be expecting the surreal elements of the play, which come to the fore in the second act. Prior is visited by deceased ancestors, played by Danny Baker and Calum Wragg-Smith, who bring some much needed comic relief to the sombre situation of Prior’s decline in health. Here, the play’s intricate staging must be commended. There is always action to follow on stage and the strategic placement of furniture allows for actors to climb out of cupboards and sofas.
The supporting cast, while not greatly visible, give further insight into the socio-political issues that the play explores. Special mention must go to Jason Pallari as the image-conscious Roy Cohn. Pallari brings an incredible authenticity to the role, even if his superb New York accent does sometimes make it difficult to catch his lines.
The intricacy of the subplots and the way in which this demonstrates how the AIDS epidemic affected people of all social status is one of the play’s best features and the audience is truly immersed in 1980’s New York – a landscape full of traditional views being troubled by fresh social challenges.
“IT’S A TRIUMPH, AND THE CAST’S PROFESSIONALISM SHINES THROUGHOUT”
The play concludes with the Angel of Death (Harry Gaff) coming to take Prior and the use of lighting and sound here makes this a startling conclusion, leading to a few jumps in the audience. Overall, Angels in America is a triumph and the cast’s professionalism shines throughout, with them even managing to make anal sex on a Central Park bench weirdly profound. Of course, things have moved on since the 1980s, yet the battle for equality is far from over, meaning that this play and its fantastic cast still manage to pack a punch.