Positive and new AIDS theatre

I’ll start by saying I’m both the best and worst person to be reviewing this play. Having spent 4 years immersed in HIV/AIDS theatre doing my PhD (further details on…) I freely admit I’m far too close to this topic.  

A lot of the time I spent looking at the history of AIDS plays was also spent wondering what a contemporary play on the subject would look like. While the odd play in recent years has made reference to or indeed deliberate non-reference to (The Boy From Oz I’m STILL looking at you for not ever naming what Peter Allen died of) HIV/AIDS over the years, there’s been little direct address, particularly from British theatre, so this play is certainly significant in that.

While thinking of that I’ve also spent much time, and may actually get down to now the thesis is done, writing my own version of the ‘AIDS play’  (do we still have to call it that? That’s another of my issues…) and I have many strong, particular ideas about what I think needs adding to the stage discussion of HIV/AIDS. But those are my stories to tell, so my feeling on Positive was it’s not the play I’d write, but it’s a play whose voice adds something important to the discussion. And it is so important we keep adding voices to that discussion, as ACT UP said so early on ‘Silence = Death’ and while the risks and dangers continue to change, I think our cultural dialogue has been too silent on the whole lately. Theatre should  return to doing what it did at the start and continue to lead the way out of that silence.  And Positive is a welcome addition to that. 

Positive is grounded in the 21st Century experience of HIV. It centres on impact emotionally of a positive diagnosis for young people today. Focused on Benji, diagnosed we learn around a year before, his life has taken a battering, being a bit reclusive and certainly not embarking on love (or sex) his health is good but the psychological impact is great. This is an important element to address when talking about HIV, particularly today where the fear of imminent serious illness (and death) that was at the focus of the earlier years where many of the plays on the subject come from, is shifted. Today a diagnosis for most will be a managed condition, one that will hopefully affect their lives only minimally if correctly treated. However the impact diagnosis can have on a person’s mental health is not one to be underestimated, and this play addresses that brilliantly. 

Benji struggles with the news, and with negotiating relationships-all kinds of relationships from family, to friends, to sexual to romantic. Positive gives a very honest open insight into what can happen to someone’s mental health as a result of their diagnosis. In having two positive characters, one of whom is a woman, we get a broader look at the impact of diagnosis today. Nikki has a different experience and one that is refreshing to see in a traditionally male dominated genre of plays. If I am honest I’d like to have seen more of her story too, but appreciate it’s a balancing act in crafting such things in a stage narrative. As it is Nikki’s story supports and expands on the experience we see Benji have with his diagnosis. Although initially she was supporting Benji as he discovered his diagnosis, we see how her own diagnosis, and initial ill health, continues to affect her life decisions. But importantly that both characters are still continuing with their lives.

The play also raises the valid, important issue of knowing your HIV status. It’s not the people like Benji, HIV positive but knowledgeable in the risks and precautions, that are a danger to anybody, but those like Olly the misguided (arguably intolerant) student. While humorous in his outrageous behaviour, there is a dark, sad undertone that bars, clubs and yes Grindr, is inhabited by boys like him, who intentionally or more often unintentionally are at risk. In not knowing his status Olly puts himself in danger as well as others. Although it is through his misguided ‘scare’ with Benji we see Olly being tested by the end of the play, the world is filled with Ollys, both in their prejudice and the ignorance in every sense which informs it. A valid point and the lesson of the play as a whole.  

The play is also mapped against a very young, and very ‘now’ backdrop. The minefields of texting etiquette, dating apps, and flat-shares along with ubiquitous smartphones populate the play. And the issues of HIV aside the nature of career, life, love and parents is a familiar one for-if I can use the horrible term ‘Millennials’ out there. And this familiarity of the world the characters inhabit may well bring in a younger audience, because while I’m a strong advocate for learning from historical pieces equally I also can’t doubt the power of also having something which contemporary audiences identify with. The language of the play, written by Shaun Kitchener who also appears as Matt in the play, is rich, vibrant and reflects the young demographic of its characters. For someone like me who has spent the best part of the last decade with my head stuck in 1980’s AIDS plays this was really refreshing. What is also refreshing is another British voice to the theatrical discussion of AIDS. Although British playwrights have taken on the subject it is an area dominated by American voices.

The production itself is well staged. Director Harry Burton uses minimal staging but gives the piece real character. The setting in the round is a great approach, and the intimate setting of the Park Theatre is a real advantage. The whole case are excellent, and there is a sense they are really at home with these characters. Particular mention also to the performance I saw which was interrupted by a fire alarm a few scenes in and the actors for dealing with that unscheduled interruption so seamlessly!

As I said at the start I am probably the best and worst person to write about this play. Best perhaps because I know the rich and varied history that Positive builds on, and that is quite the legacy to take on particularly for a young writer and cast. There’s inevitably also the muttered backlash I feel sure has came from those who ‘were there when’ who would like to disregard any modern take on HIV/AIDS. But that modern take is so important, and it’s exciting to me that young writers are lending their voice to this rather than dismissing it as another generation’s problem.

I am the worst person to write about this as I say,  because I am so ‘in it’. So crtically attached and emotionally attached to the subject matter after all these years. I also have, as a result many, many ideas of my own about what AIDS plays should be doing now. But in a way that’s irrelevant, that’s my story to add. The beautiful thing about ‘AIDS theatre’ is the myriad of stories that have been told, and the desperate sad thing that there are so many more stories to be told. So no, positive is not the story I would tell, but there’s plenty of time for that. There are so many stories we need to tell.

I think also it’s interesting this play has been on stage parallel to the revival of As Is, the first AIDS play (and incidentally I saw them on the same day, because why not make a day of it)  And actually Positive has many similar themes, not least a message of hope that sometimes gets lost in the more, shall we say ‘worthy’ AIDS theatre. As well as this a sense of humour, vital because in trying to talk about darker topics we need the light to balance it. These plays exist in very different worlds, but they do have their sense of the humanity of those affected by HIV at heart, and that is the mark of the strongest work on this topic.

Positive is at the Park Theatre, London until August 1st
As Is is at the Trafalgar Studios until August 1st


Review: Everyman Beauty and the Beast

“Tale as old as time….”

It probably comes as no surprise to anybody who knows me that Beauty and the Beast is my favourite Disney film. I mean it’s about a girl who lives through books, and then gets to live in a castle with a giant library…oh and she meets a Prince as well.

It is one of the classic Disney films, and among one of the best Disney film to stage adaptations. And again anybody who knows me also knows what a sucker I was/am for John Barrowman as Gaston.

All to say I was pretty excited to see what the Junior production at the festival would hold, but also apprehensive as ever when seeing something you love so well adapted. But as with As You Like It on Wednesday I needn’t have worried, because Everyman’s young cast do a sterling job.

It’s a hard one to pull off, especially outside with minimal props, but the cast pull it off expertly. The whole piece is wonderfully sung, showing great talent from the young cast.  Charlotte Tonge makes an excellent Belle, and sings beautifully as well as delivering a beautiful performance while Ben Joseph Smith does an excellent job of the difficult role of the Beast (acting through that costume is certainly a challenge!) And mention must go to Ross Broad for a wonderful and funny Gaston.

The rest of the cast also do a brilliant job from the various villagers and servants that show just how much talent Everyman has to offer, to those in the Beast’s castle from Mrs Potts to Cogsworth, working with difficult costumes and bringing great humour and charm to the production. The costumes by Dave Parker and Ruth Rees are really excellent bringing elaborate costumes to the household items, and beautiful dresses to Belle and the ladies.

This is an ideal production for parents looking to introduce children to the theatre. A lot of fun with a sprinkling of theatrical magic, I highly recommend for a summer holiday treat. And (shhh) parents will enjoy it just as much!

Beauty and the Beast runs until 1st August but the last day is already sold out! So get your tickets fast, shows at 12.00 and 2.30pm and tickets available here:

Meanwhile, As You Like It continues until August 1st also. Tickets available here:

And my review here:


Everyman: As You Like It

Is is too much of a pun to say ‘As you like it…but I think you will?’ …ok then I won’t. But you get the idea.

As You like it takes place predominantly in the forest of Arden, so it was the perfect setting with the backdrop of trees in Bute Park. Complete with occasional animal noises (well seagulls and dogs…) but as the light darkens the green lit stage and the backdrop of trees creates the perfect atmosphere for the play.

One of the most popular Shakespeare comedies, it’s easy to see why. As You Like It is a heartwarming play about romance and love-in various forms, from at first sight with Rosalind and Orlando, to the harder won romance of Phoebe and her Shepherd.

The play starts with a banishment, Rosalind’s mother has been banished to the forest, while she remains with her aunt and cousin Celia. After seeing young man Orlando wrestling his way to victory (in a piece of excellent and hilarious staging!) it is love at first sight for Rosalind. Soon after she finds herself banished to the forest also, taking Celia with her. Orlando leaves for the forest with his elderly servant Adam soon after the ladies.

What follows is a classic disguise and mistaken identities drama, which takes on the subject of love, declaring ‘Love is merely a madness’ with Rosalind disguised as a boy, teaches Orlando about wooing a woman. The backdrop of characters from forest and court provide a funny and touching story of love and life. And it’s surely not revealing too much to say that all rights itself in the end.

Director Rebecca Gould weaves a wonderful production out of these elements. Setting the play in pre-World War One attire allows the world of the play to become distance but not too distant for the audience. The set is minimal, with two trees fashioned of branches and offcuts flanking the stage, while the performance makes use of the different levels and even the audience section to create different worlds. Being set within the forest, the backdrop of Bute Park creates a better set than anything than any dressing or props and this pared down approach allows the actors and Shakespeare’s words to take centre stage.

The leading roles have a lot resting on them-if an audience doesn’t root for or even like Rosalind and Orlando the play falls flat. There’s no fear of this being a problem here. I must confess Rosalind is a favourite Shakespearean leading lady of mine, which always makes me anxious that actors or directors will get her wrong. Bridie Smith here allayed any fears. Her Rosalind is funny and heartwarming, but also retains the strength and intelligence of the character. Playing opposite Eifion Ap Cadno as Orlando, who brings charm and warmth to the character but also again shows the intelligence beneath Shakespeare’s Orlando. It’s easy to slip into silliness and cliche with these leading roles, but both actors bring a humour and intelligence to their versions which make them a cut above. You are immediately drawn to the individually which means you root for them-and fall a bit in love with them yourselves, which is exactly what the audience should do.

They are supported by an equally talented cast who all have excellent comic timing, and really bring to life even the smaller stories within the play and make it a rich and varied production. Victoria Walters as Celia provides an excellent partner in crime for Rosalind, while Charlotte Rees as Phoebe delivers a real sense of fun with the character and not forgetting Sophie Wilmot-Jackson as Audrey completing the quartet of ladies looking for love-and stealing she show.

The production is punctuated by musical interludes which really add to the production, giving the world of the play a real sense of character and allowing for some innovative transitions between scenes. Things end, as they did traditionally with a triumphant jig, which sums up wonderfully the jubilant nature of this play.

For anybody looking for a first Shakespeare to see, As You Like It is always a good bet-straightforward, funny, touching it’s hard to go wrong. And it’s hard to go wrong with this production. Equally, if you’ve always meant to check out Everyman, or have just heard of them, this is a great production to start with as it shows the company at their best.

Until 1st August at Sofia Gardens Cardiff


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Everyman Festival: Sweet Charity

Last night saw the opening night of show 2 in Everyman’s Festival repertoire, this time musical theatre with Neil Simon’s Sweet Charity. 

Set against the backdrop of 1960s New York, Sweet Charity follows the life (and many loves!) of Charity Hope Valentine (Helena-May Harrison). The girl who proclaims her religion in love, doesn’t get off to the best start when her ‘fiance’ (aside from the minor detail he’s married to another woman) turns their romantic stroll into the park into quite a ‘wet’ affair for Charity. Her job as a dance hall hostess doesn’t fill her life with the glamour she is quite certain she deserves…or the kind of men either. Along the way Charity manages a night to remember (in not quite the right ways) with Italian movie star Vittorio Vidal (the perfectly accented, and wonderfully voiced Matt Preece) Charity doesn’t give up on love however and one day on another quest for love ends up trapped in a lift with a mild-mannered accountant (Tim Reynolds) Could this be the man to change Charity’s life and love? well that would be telling of course….

What is certain is that this is a fun-filled production. Filled with classic numbers including ‘If my friends could see me now’ ‘Hey Big Spender’ and ‘Rhythm of Life’ (which I promise will be stuck in your head for days after)  all sung in fine voice by the company. The leading roles are filled brilliantly across the board giving real life and soul to Charity, her friend and suitors. In particular the ‘Fandango Girls’ are a joy to watch as a group, The whole ensemble is a hard-working group who all bring individual life to whichever character they’re currently taking on-from onlookers in the park to the rich and famous at a Manhattan club. 

The choreography is always central to a musical, and director Richard Tunley has done an excellent job with this production. By far my favourite number was the 60s club number, the ensemble in monochrome moving through not one but 3 complex dance numbers in quick succession. In the choreography he really captures the spirit of the piece and the 1960s club scene that features so prominently. The costumes and set, both designed by Anna-Marie Hainsworth give really give the piece the feel of the era also-and just like last week’s Blackadder, they make the most of minimal staging creating countless scenes out of the smallest backdrops. 

This is a fun filled and high quality musical production. If you haven’t yet been to the Everyman Festival this one is a great production to start with. It runs until 18th July but musical offerings are always popular so book soon! 

And if you can’t make it to Sweet Charity, this year’s Shakespeare offering ‘As You Like It’ follows on 22nd July-4th August. 

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Review: As Is

‘As Is’ is the first AIDS play, the first response to a crisis, from those on the front line. It could be asked why then is this still relevant over 30 years on, but it is precisely because it is that first response that gives it such drive, such impact still. And that the crisis may have changed, but that AIDS is still an issue, and one that urgently still needs our attention is why it is  so important that this play is revived.

Director Andrew Keates brings the production first staged at the Finborough in 2013 to the Trafalgar Studios, and the new setting brings even more life to this dynamic production. A real ensemble piece with each actor taking on multiple parts to paint a picture of New York in the early days of AIDS. At its centre are Rich and Saul, who we meet in the midst of a breakup

The production begins with an affecting soundscape of discussions about AIDS. The terrifying news reports that declared the ‘Gay Plague’ and condemning those who had it. This soundscape not only pulls the audience into the world of the play, foreshadowing the action with the real life news reports that preceded it in reality, but also allows the audience to reflect on their own experience. Asking ourselves ‘when did you first hear about AIDS?’ makes us enter the play considering our own expectations, experience and afterwards what we might now do about those.

As Is puts people at its centre. The relationship between Rich (Steven Webb) and Saul (David Poynor) is disintegrating as the play opens and they squabble about their possessions and Rich’s new lover Chet. When Rich begins to show signs of AIDS his new relationship breaks down and he asks Saul for help. As their relationship shifts and develops as Rich’s illness manifests, there is backdrop of characters who flesh out the backdrop of the early days of AIDS. We see his struggles with both physical and emotional toll of the illness, not only on Rich but those around him. The relationship with Saul, with his friends and movingly his brother all show the life-changing and terrifying impact an AIDS diagnosis had at this time.

These characters, played skilfully and equally hilariously and movingly by the rest of the cast, show the Doctors, Nurses, support groups, helpline staff and friends who were attempting to confront the AIDS epidemic. The often chaotic scenes pull the audience into this colourful and confusing world. The staging brings this sometimes literally into the laps of the audience with the fourth wall being broken, involving the audience in this world as well. Most moving of these surrounding characters is perhaps the hospice worker who bookends the piece, she sees these patients come and go, and also the treatment they get from the hospitals and the outside world. The Hospice Worker’s closing thoughts, thinking about two patients-one Rich who is currently fighting and fighting hard, and another man clinging onto life the audience is reminded of the vast spread of AIDS and it’s reaching impact. As the lights come up and the audience sees the walls set up so audiences can graffiti the names of those lost, they might then go back to that original question of when they first heard of AIDS, and all that has happened since.

Despite the subject matter As Is has to be one of the most hopeful plays ever written. It ends for Rich and Saul on a hopeful, and also defiant note. In any play this is a powerful ending, but for one about AIDS it seems so very important. To leave the play feeling optimistic about love and life is surely its greatest tool. A less overtly political play than some of its contemporaries, but the lack of political content doesn’t make it apolitical. The message may be centrally about love, but what else motivates us to action more than love? For an enduring message on AIDS through theatre, this first response, and the response of care and love has more longevity than the politics of the time.

As Is runs at the Trafalgar Studios until August 1st. There are also a variety of post-show events discussing the past, present and future of AIDS.

On Fridays there is also free HIV testing.