Pros: Fun and witty with some strong, inspirational messages.
Cons: A little too preoccupied with the past, there is a lack of forward momentum.
Walking in to the theatre space at Above The Stag, it’s easy to feel right at home. The staff are super friendly, the rumbling of trains mean you feel part of the city around you and the set of Rise Like a Phoenix is a living room. And not just any living room: this one is decorated with pictures of Marilyn Monroe, Cher, Lady Gaga and other female icons. Excuse the cliché, but it looked fabulous. Designer Zoe Hurwitz has created a homely and welcoming atmosphere on stage and I felt part of the party from the start.
An intimate monologue opens the show where we are welcomed into the home of Hector Greer (Reed Stokes), sorry I mean Fanny Sparkles, because for one night only Hector is living out his dream going drag. His first time cross dressing isn’t the only reason the night is a high-pressure one for Hector, he is also hosting a party attended by his ex-fiancé Alan (Lewis Rae) and Alan’s new boyfriend Eddie (Jonny Dickens). There to support Hector is musical-obsessed Pippin (Conleth Kane) and ‘house help’ Gucci (Dimitrios Raptidis). But the guests and host have more than their sexuality and social circle in common; they are members of an exclusive club – they all have HIV.
With the group tied together by their shared social and medial history, there was a lot of reflecting back on the past; how their lives have been changed by their diagnosis and its toll on their relationships. Interspersed between the scenes are confidential monologues where the characters completely open up to the audience. The monologues do not occur frequently enough to feel part of the flow of the piece and they exacerbate the lack of present day momentum.
The performances are of good quality; Stokes gives a fun, witty turn as Hector/Fanny, though he is a little too hard-edged to feel completely likable. Overall, there weren’t many glaring problems apart from a general issue with diction, which may get cleaner over the course of the run. Stealing the show is Raptidis as Gucci, portraying a strong, sparky character who refuses to be marginalised by people’s assumptions about his sexuality, his nationality and his intelligence.
Rise Like A Phoenix reopens the conversation about HIV in the gay community in a contemporary context that many still associate solely with the Eighties. This is a modern issue; you only have to look at the debate surrounding HIV treatment in the general election with two Lib Dem candidates coming out as HIV-positive in recent weeks to see how important it is to keep the discussion open. For this, Rise Like A Phoenix is to be commended, and it does so with a certain amount of style and flourish. If there was more dynamism to this piece, it could be something quite special.
Writer: Paul Emelion Daly
Director: Tim McArthur
Designer: Zoe Hurwitz
Booking Until: 3 May 2015
Booking Link: http://www.abovethestag.com/shows/