It would be like pissing on a grave to be overly critical of ‘Elegies’, the song cycle of AIDS victims interspersed with thirty-two heartfelt blank verse monologues charting individual experience of the fatal disease.
But a little bit of wee did come out when we reflected on the wasted opportunity of staging this electrically important landmark of late 20th century theatre in such a flat and helpless way. Has no-one seen ‘Rent’ ?
The motives are impeccable: actors, singers, musicians and crew have given their time for free so that a proportion of the ticket price can be donated to the Terrence Higgins Trust.
Despite only a week’s rehearsal the acting is of a consistently high standard but whilst all the emotions are deeply felt the engagement with the audience really lifts off in the two monologues updated from the 1992 original - one showcasing internet-fuelled ‘revenge’ sex and the best charting the resistance of South Africa’s politicians to the realities of AIDS dissemination.
In the personal memoir of Nonkosa whose condom-resistant long-distance philandering husband infected both her and her children, softly but searingly portrayed by Natasha Magigi, the audience whooped and cheered at her castigation of Thabo Mbeki and his government’s stance that “a shower is protection enough”. It made you feel for a moment how the original audiences must have reacted when ALL the stories were as fresh and angry as this one.
Despite the title, there’s no punk element or gay glam rock in the music, it’s all rooted in the Bacharach-and-David lounge era, and not even the considerable vocal talents of Leon Lopez, Jonathan Hellyer, and the redoubtable Miquel Brown from the 1992 London cast can blast it out of blandness, although scoring it for just one piano cello and harp doesn’t really give it a fighting chance on the modern musical stage.
It may have been a case of first night detumescence because in this video clip from rehearsals, the performances were much livelier and voices unmacerated by the sound desk. The rudimentary choreography, by ‘Omar F. Okai’ is hopefully a deliberate homage to the hackneyed hoofing of the eighties but Joe Hornsby’s lighting is a poignant chessboard of coloured squares each top-down on an actor seated attentively in his own chair as a motif of disconnection and symbolic of the panels of the NAMES Project quilt by which each will eventually be memorialized.
Elegies for Angels, Punks and Raging Queens continues at the Shaw Theatre, Euston Road, London NW1 until 28 August. Performances Tuesday-Saturday at 7.45pm and Saturday Matinee at 4.30pm. Tickets are £15 to £25 in advance from Camden Fringe Box Office, £30 on the door of which £5 goes to the charity. It’s August and discounts abound, so if you can snag a cheaper seat please dig correspondingly deep to donate via the Terrence Higgins Trust volunteers at the theatre.