Pros: AIDS and HIV are still relevant and important to discuss, and make theatre about, 27 years later.
Cons: Clunky, awkward with no zip whatsoever.
Going into Soho, even on a Thursday night, is exciting. The place is always buzzing and it is a reminder that the times we live in, though a long way off perfect, have advanced a great deal. Less than four decades ago, the gay community was being ravaged by AIDS, and shunned by society, today there are treatments, and there is understanding.
It is with this knowledge of where we have come from, and where we have arrived, that I approached the double bill of plays borne out of the AIDS crisis in 1980s America. On Tidy Endings and Safe Sex are two plays from a trilogy by Harvey Fierstein, Broadway royalty of La Cage Aux Folles fame, and latterly Newsies and Kinky Boots. Since Tony Kushner’s Angels in America is among my favourite plays, I was eager for the evening of theatre ahead. From the programme, I was given to understand I would be watching On Tidy Endings, followed by Safe Sex but the reverse order threw me off and distracted me slightly, but this complaint is a minor one.
The action, originally taking place in NYC, is resituated to England – though, as signified by the music, we are still in the eighties. The plays reek of their US settings, from the American English that awkwardly tumbles out in English accents, to the whole atmosphere, unique to gay Americans living under Reagan, who bleated about the American Elect and failed to tackle the epidemic, spurning its sufferers.
This is only a small part of the awkwardness that pervades the two pieces. Safe Sex shows two reunited lovers (C.J. de Mooi and Cole Michaels) with a long shared history trying to re-navigate a sexual relationship with AIDS hanging over their heads. With only two men on stage, most of the time in a state of undress, the piece completely depends on their chemistry, and sadly there was very little on show. Indeed, for a play about a couple that get close to having sex on stage more than once, this play lacked the energy, electricity, and yes – sexiness – of plays with much tamer subject matter.
The second piece, On Tidy Endings offers much more opportunity for emotive moments. Although the performances are a little ungainly (sometimes a lot) you’d have to have a heart of stone not to get teary-eyed as Arthur (C.J. de Mooi again) describes the final moments of his lover. And when his late partner’s son (played with vim by Daniel Purves) throws off his strop and embraces Arthur, I was moved. But the overall effect of the piece, which veers wildly between cattiness and sticky sentiment as Arthur and his partner’s ex-wife (Deena Payne) bicker, is unimpressive. Depth of feeling is cast aside in favour of snark and flippancy and the result left me cold.
I didn’t live through the AIDS crisis; thankfully I never had to watch friends suffer, so I can’t respond to the play’s subject matter in the same way some older audience members might. But when I saw Angels in America, it brought me right into the tragedy, the misery, and even the humanity of the AIDS crisis in a way these plays never get close to doing – and that is one part the fault of the actual text but two parts its execution. In an article that appeared when the play was first performed in 1987, Fierstein argues, ‘This play is not about the disease. It’s about life,’ sadly this production had very little of that.
This production was in support of Make A Difference Trust.
Director: Dan Phillips
Author: Harvey Fierstein
Box Office: 020 7240 6283
Booking Link: http://www.tristanbatestheatre.co.uk/tbt_performanceListing.asp?classname=safe
Booking Until: 17th May 2014