Testing Times

Steve Burbridge
The Trent House, Newcastle

Pauline Fleming, Christopher Strain and Collin Baxter
Christopher Strain and Collin Baxter

Dominic is HIV positive. Testing Times tells his story and how it impacts on his mother and his partner, Chris. The play is based on interviews conducted by writer, director and producer Steve Burbridge with a number of men who have gone through the experience.

It’s essentially a piece of story-telling: the three characters sit on high stools facing the audience and speak directly to us, with occasional interaction between them. Dominic begins by remembering his childhood (with occasional interjections from Brenda, his mother) and how he was always different to the other boys, resulting in his being bullied unmercifully. We learn how he and Chris met and their happiness together before his first symptoms and we travel with them through his subsequent diagnosis, with all the emotional impact on all three.

Christopher Strain captures the rather camp emotional roller-coaster which is Dominic very well, carrying the audience along with his infectious enthusiasms and deep despair, whilst Pauline Fleming gives mother Brenda a Scouse feistiness which strikes sparks in her speeches. As Chris, Collin Baxter is more restrained, indeed low-key, which was possibly intended to be a contrast to the more extravagant Dominic but this didn't quite work for me.

Even today HIV+ sufferers tend to be demonised in the popular imagination and Testing Times counters this very effectively without being preachy. Set it in the context of a loving relationship and a family—incidentally, Pauline Fleming manages to bring her husband Bob alive for us although we never see him—and showing us the human cost, the play resonates far beyond the LGB community and could well (minus the swearing!) make a good Theatre in Education piece.

Burbridge manages—unusual in a first (produced) play—to avoid most of the pitfalls of issue-based theatre where all too often those issues take centre-stage and overwhelm the characterisation. We do care about this man and his loved ones and that is more than half the battle!

Although the production runs until Saturday 27th April, there is no performance on Friday 26th.

Reviewer: Peter Lathan

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