Elegies For Angels, Punks and Raging Queens at the Criterion Theatre, London.
Star rating: 4 stars ★ ★ ★ ★
Started in 1985, the AIDS Memorial Quilt memorialises the lives lost to HIV with a series of personalised panels that, as they have become stitched together, form the largest – and yet most intimate – piece of public art in the world. That artwork inspired the creation of Elegies For Angels, Punks and Raging Queens, which strives to achieve the same effect with a combination of songs and free verse monologues.
First staged in New York in 1989, Elegies’ patchwork nature requires a substantial cast – so much so that it is hard to envisage how the show’s first London staging could have fitted into the tiny King’s Head theatre in Islington in 1992. That production later transferred for a short West End run to the Criterion Theatre the following year. And now, 25 years after its first US production, the same theatre has played host to a one-off gala performance, directed by Stephen Whitson, in aid of the Make a Difference Trust, the entertainment industry’s charity supporting those with HIV, AIDS and other long-term chronic illnesses.
Lyricist and book writer Bill Russell spins loving vignettes into a wide array of people taken by the disease, each speaking from beyond the grave, their lives and their deaths distilled into delicately crafted rhyming couplets. Some speeches are imbued with pathos, but as with all the best wakes, many more remembrances are full of humour. From Miles Western’s Joe decrying the blandness of his quilt piece when he wanted something far more fabulous, to Antony Stuart-Hicks’ raucously vulgar drag queen, the moments of high camp lift the spirits, and prevent the evening from ever becoming too maudlin. Yes, their characters and many others in the show are stereotypes, but they are more than that, too: archetypes of people whose lust for life – even just lust, or love – came to an end all too soon, as the virus gouged its way through communities.
The realities of ignorance, prejudice and homophobia are not ignored. There are tales of partners nursing each other, only for parents to go back on their word to allow them to be buried side by side; of the secretary laid off from her job after the boss she cared for until death had passed away; the South African woman let down by a government which claimed that showering and a garlic-infused diet would be enough to prevent infection. Many of these tales do feel less relevant to today’s audiences, where (in the West at least) advances in drug therapies have reduced HIV from an automatic death sentence to a manageable, chronic condition. Such advances are not in evidence in a 25-year-old script, of course; if anything, attempts to update dialogue with references to Tiger Woods, Netflix and Grindr have a tendency to cheapen rather than modernise the production.
Janet Hood’s music complements Russell’s words effectively, from Cassie Compton’s opening number (the titular ‘Angels, Punks and Raging Queens’) to more contemplative ballads, such as Fra Fee’s sublime delivery of ‘And the Rain Keeps Falling Down’.
As with the monologues, it is perhaps the upbeat numbers that make the biggest impression. Emma Kingston and Emma Lindars’ duet of the anthemic ’Celebrate’ lifts the soul, as does the finale number, ‘Learning to Let Go’, which sees the Criterion stage packed with all 50-plus cast members. Throughout, musical director Dean Austin (accompanied by cellist Sophie Gledhill and harpist Ruth Holden) provides a solid foundation for an evening of joy, tears, of celebration of life – and of hope for the future.
* The Make a Difference Trust – www.madtrust.org.uk