Amanda Hodges reviews the Lyric Theatre’s revival of Tony Kushner’s epic two-part play.

First produced in 1992, it says much for the Lyric’s current revival of Tony Kushner’s epic two part play that, despite clocking in at over six and a half hours of drama, the vast majority of this (a few superfluous moments aside) offers theatre of the highest calibre: riveting, darkly humorous and profoundly humane, a triumphant revival in all respects.

“I didn’t write Angels in America to have a political effect. I don’t think you should do that as a writer, you should write to make an entertaining evening of theatre.”
Tony Kushner

Although the beauty and power of the piece (staged in conjunction with Headlong Theatre Co and Citizens Theatre) undoubtedly derives from its kaledeiscopic intensity and fusion of the realistic with the magically surreal, there’s a simple thread running through the heart of the play, the story of two disintegrating relationships whose protagonists collide at various points in the drama.

Set in the Eighties during the Reagan administration, Angels follows the lives of two individuals, Prior Walters (a sensational Mark Emerson) and Joseph Porter Pitt (equally good Jo Stone-Fewings). Prior is a young gay man from a very old family who’s been recently diagnosed with AIDS. His lover Louis (Adam Levy) has just left, unable to deal with illness, the guilt engendered by his betrayal returning to haunt him. Joe is a bisexual lawyer from Saltlake City whose pill-popping wife Harper (Kirsty Bushell) finds solace from her unfulfilling marriage in a richly quixotic fantasy life. Pitt is the protégé of the corrupt, cavalier Roy Cohn (Greg Hicks), a slick, chillingly effective lawyer of Satanic hue who refuses to face his AIDS, labelling it liver cancer as he’s decided AIDS is the territory of homosexuals, whom he dismisses as ‘men who have zero clout. Does that sound like me?!’

Although the drama has AIDS at its forefront it’s about much more than this, its emphasis on a government who sideline anyone not conforming to the archetypal image of the American Dream hitting the mark not only in its own timeframe of 1985 but still pertinent today with Bush’s current war on terror. A first-rate cast bring every nuance of the drama vividly to life, and the production as a whole is well served by Daniel Kramer’s capable direction.

Best of all the play never feels like it’s simply serving you a palatable slice of political history but comes across vividly as a brilliant meditation on life, love and the power of defiance, whether it be in the face of illness or political oppression. As Tony Kushner says ‘ I didn’t write Angels in America to have a political effect. I don’t think you should do that as a writer, you should write to make an entertaining evening of theatre. As I understand it, entertainment is about thinking and being challenged, and this is something the play provides in rich abundance. Its first part- Millennium Approaches – perhaps wields more consistent poetic power than the follow-up, Perestroika, but both display the imaginative virtuosity that make this a truly enthralling experience to witness.

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