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As Is, Finborough Theatre

William M. Hoffman 
Directed by Andrew Keates 

Pros: Seamless staging and impassioned acting.

Cons: Almost zero, although being ultra-picky, I’ll say there was scope for the emotional scenes to be cranked up even more.

Our Verdict: A virtually faultless production, with a gripping and well-structured storyline and exhilarating performances.

Courtesy of Finborough Theatre

On Wednesday, Stephen Fry published an open letter to David Cameron and the International Olympic Committee, urging them to take action against the violent anti-gay laws of Russia, the host of next year’s Winter Olympics. Tonight, he was sitting a few rows in front of me at the Finborough Theatre, watching Arion Productions’ revival of As Is, a play about AIDS-infected gay men dealing with the stigma attached to the disease (and their sexuality). I just hope his weekend is looking a little more chilled.

Of course any human rights’ violation is worth fighting against, and plays like this offer a valuable and personal insight into how certain groups have struggled against prejudice and hardship. Set in New York in the early 80s, it tells the story of Rich (Tom Colley) and his recently ditched but reconciled lover Saul (David Poynor). Rich, a care-free and hedonistic writer, has just heard the news every gay New Yorker living at the time dreaded: no, Diana Ross hasn’t cancelled a concert. He’s HIV positive.

Within seconds of hearing the disastrous news, key characters in his life appear on stage: Rich’s anxious but distancing BFF, his pompous homophobe brother, his hunky young home-wrecker ex, his business partner, doctors. What followed was a snappy and infused ‘multi-monologue’ that both perfectly captured the well-rounded personality of each character, but also brought to light the taboo-busting knee-jerk reactions anyone might display when faced with an AIDS-stricken close acquaintance. The cows had very much come home to roost (as I believe the old adage goes).

This piece of staging was a prime example of how slick and efficient the entire production was. And it had to be. Between them, the supporting cast of six played thirty two different roles (counting them in the programme took up a nice bit of time on the District Line, the rest was spent psyching out a giant dog). And whereas in many plays one might comment on ‘the amusingly ingenious set change’, where look! a cupboard has turned miraculously into a wardrobe!, here everything was refreshingly concealed: no musical interludes, no pregnant pauses, few if any blackouts. The story continued while the costume-switching and the slight set alterations happened without you noticing. Or caring for that matter. This production had the misdirection techniques of Copperfield, but without the cheesy music and over-the-top pizzazz (but with the tight trousers).

With such a lot on their plate, one could forgive the actors for a few slip ups, but there really weren’t any. The acting was beautifully measured, and the characters, I can’t stress enough, were excellently developed. They had the subtle depth that allowed you properly to invest in them, despite some appearing only fleetingly. The plethora of feelings experienced and emoted by Rich as he slowly transforms into a desperate wounded animal of a man really caught you between the eyes. He was unpleasant, he was selfish, he’d throw tantrums, but at the same time he was utterly pitiable. It makes you wonder how Justin Bieber sleeps at night.

But it wasn’t all doom and gloom. The play was peppered with smart one-liners, and a scene poking fun at how leather-clad cruisers pick each other up in nightclubs was a moment of quality comedy. I haven’t experienced such a fascinating window into the gay community since the time I accidentally dropped a red handkerchief during a Vauxhall roller disco.

As a standalone play, As Is is must-see viewing. But it’s more than just a play. It’s widely regarded as the first play to portray AIDS’ sufferers: warts (and lesions and blisters) and all. Although predominantly a comment on the leper-like treatment of those with the disease, the play now shows how, nearly 30 years after its premier, the so-called civilised world is still racked with the same prejudice and ignorance. It’s imperative that everyone rallies to ensure that the unfair and immoral actions of certain countries and institutions are consigned to history, to resurface only in a great little theatre such as the Finborough, as a reminder to how uncouth we all once were. One man can’t change the world. Even if that man is Stephen Fry.

Please feel free to leave your thoughts and opinions in the comments section below!

As Is runs at Finborough Theatre until 31st August 2013.
Box Office: 0844 847 1652 or book online at: .

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