Angels in America Part One : Millennium Approaches

Tony Kushner

Citizens Theatre Company, Headlong Theatre and the Lyric Hammersmith

Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith

(2007)

Review by Philip Fisher

Over the centuries, there have been very few writers who could perfectly catch the mood of a time and a place. To create a humane piece that lasts three and a half hours and encapsulates Reagan's America as AIDS began to decimate the gay community is remarkable. That was Tony Kushner's achievement in the first part of his magnum opus of Magic Realism, Angels in America, originally subtitled "A Gay Fantasia On National Themes". He then repeated it in Part : Two, reviewed separately.

Daniel Kramer has been building up to this for some time, directing Hair and then Bent and establishing himself as one of the best directors of Gay Plays today.

Angels in America is far more than a single issue play and this momentous production is spectacular, as well as funny, insightful and frequently painfully moving.

We are in 1985, which now seems a long time ago. This is the age of Ronald Reagan, a mystery disease and, as Carolyn Downing's effective soundscape shows, Bruce Springsteen in Born in the USA mode.

The state of the nation is metaphorically portrayed through the lives of two couples and a wild Jewish lawyer. He is real life character Roy Cohn, given awful truth by Greg Hicks, playing at adrenalin-fuelled, wise-cracking speed, almost like a sinister Groucho Marx.

Cohn is proud of his diabolical history, a friend of McCarthy and willing to boast about his part in the death of spy Ethel Rosenberg. He is also homosexual, though in denial as AIDS (and Ann Mitchell's Ethel) seeks society's revenge on him.

His main ally is a Mormon innocent called Joe Pitt (Jo Stone-Fewings). He is a Republican who works with Cohn and worships him. This does nothing for his marriage or love-life with the already neurotic, valium addicted Harper, played by the really excellent Kirsty Bushell.

The circle is completed by another gay Jew, Louis (Adam Levy), who works in the same legal office. His life has been thrown awry by the announcement of his blond-haired partner, Prior Walter XXXII (or possibly XXXIV) (Mark Emerson), a descendant of both a Mayflower immigrant and figure on the Bayeux tapestry. As this representative of the failure of the Great American Dream so poetically puts it before cracking some bad lesion jokes, he is yet another victim of "The wine dark kiss of the Angel of Death".

The pain of living with AIDS is beautifully shown from the viewpoints of both victim and partner. Along the way, we also meet some weird and wonderful Angels, often camply played by Obi Abili, or dramatically by Golda Rosheuvel.

The time flies by and leads to a memorable final curtain scene in which designer Soutra Gilmour and her lighting colleague Charles Balfour link up for the visitation of a heavenly angel, Miss Rosheuvel singing the part powerfully.

That sets us up nicely for Part Two, following a two-hour dinner break.

This production was reviewed by V Mitchell at Northern Stage, Newcastle, and by David Chadderton at The Lowry, Salford