Last Dance

Craig Hepworth & Adele Stanhope

Vertigo Theatre Productions

King's Arms Salford

From 26 May 2015 to 30 May 2015

Review by Andrew Edwards

Vertigo Theatre Productions brings this powerful new drama about the early years of the HIV / AIDS epidemic to the King’s Arms fresh from its success in the recent Manchester Theatre Awards. The company was nominated for three awards for their last show Watching Goldfish Suffocate.

its new piece is a family drama set in America against the backdrop of the early 1980s when the HIV / AIDS epidemic first broke out. Corey is a broadway dancer who is one of the first to be diagnosed with the new disease. Very little is known about it.

The period is that very disturbing time when it had been recognised as a kind of cancer which seemed particularly to be attacking gay men but it was not clear how or why. The play shows the impact on Corey’s close relationships with his friends, lovers and family.

Now that HIV is largely managed for most people, in the west at least, by a strict drugs regime, it’s quite salutary to recall the frightening era when a diagnosis was effectively a death sentence. That’s the worry from the start. How will Corey cope with the grim news his doctor outlines for him and of course the audience too?

There is much tension and anger in the play. Characters do a lot of shouting but the issues are so big that it feels right and the audience is with them all the way.

Why is this epidemic happening at all and why isn’t the (US) government doing anything to stop it? Have I passed the disease to anyone with whom I’ve had sex? How to come to terms with one’s sudden unexpected final illness and death at such a young age? How can I square being gay with having a faith and is AIDS my punishment? How to support someone who is dying when you’re not sure how strong is your bond of attachment?

In well-paced scenes, these questions and others are rigorously explored through the different perspectives of brothers, mother and sister and the close friends and lovers.

Paul Worral as Danny has a quiet strength yet ably demonstrates his deep feeling for  Corey all the way through. Stuart Reeve as doctor and family friend Henry brilliantly conveys the stress of having to care for so many young men who are going to die when he can do nothing to save nor effectively care for them.

Benjamin Corry has a difficult job as Corey’s sometime boyfriend Peter. While we may not warm to his decisions, Benjamin’s performance ensures that we do at least grow to understand the reasons for his behaviour.

Newcomer to Vertigo Lloyd Eyre Morgan is better known as a successful writer and director of his own work. Lloyd makes a fine characterisation of James, Corey’s staunch friend, and has lovely timing for the welcome comic relief he occasionally affords.

Celine Constantinides plays Corey’s sister Sarah. She skilfully shows the way Sarah is torn between loyalty to her brother and her family and the toll it takes on her own life.

Julie Edwards gives a very powerful performance as Corey’s mother Rose. She struggles to understand that her sons are gay and can’t reconcile being struck down with HIV / AIDS with her Christian faith. The exceptionally well controlled soliloquoy where she begs God not to let her Corey die is very moving.

Ryan McMyler plays two roles equally effectively. As Corey’s brother Alan, he is outraged at what is happening and also at the choices Corey makes to deal with his illness. His own reaction, which is to go out and be unsafe in the bath houses, is a risky thing for the play to depict but it was one of the reactions to the epidemic so is very truthful. Ryan also portrays a former lover of Corey who is similarly ill with the disease but is quite philosophical about it.

In another splendidly passionate performance, Richard Allen as Corey is the lead and reveals a fine range in his dramatic skills. His descent into the illness is very well shown. He looks more and more ravaged with lesions and dishevelled as the drama unfolds. He is appropriately angry but resigned at times too.

It is quite realistic and fits with this reviewer’s memories of the experience of friends who were afflicted at the height of the epidemic. Richard also shows an unexpected facility for physical movement in a part of the show which it would be unfair to reveal.

There is some nudity as many of the cast depict the casual sexual scene in bath houses. While it is graphic, it is entirely right for the subject matter and very well choreographed to the pulsing beat of Frankie Goes to Hollywood. It's an apt contrast to the sufffering with which it alternates.

There are many standout moments. Two in particular are a scene where Corey asks James not to forget him, which is very moving, and the final tableau and sequence. This comes when Corey has reached the end of his road and is hugely upsetting.

It’s a simple set with furnishings denoting two playing areas. There is much clever use of red light to show bath house activity where the cast don towels and simulate the free and easy couplings which abounded at the time. The screens at the back are also well employed with projections to show the church or a hospital and the finale where they show footlights as the cast take their places for the final tableau.

This is a long play at over 2 and a quarter hours run time. The cast held the attention of the full house throughout, which is as much a tribute to the writer-directors Craig Hepworth and Adele Stanhope. The emotions displayed pack a heavy emotional wallop by the end. It compares very well to other classic HIV plays such as Angels in America and The Normal Heart.

As we watch what is essentially a play about intimate relationships, we may reflect that, while we are fortunate to live in a time when the treatment of HIV / AIDS has transformed lives across the world, we forget how it began at our peril.