Marianne Elliot directs a startling relevant version of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America (Part 1), the National Theatre brings the lengthy 3 hours and 30 minutes to the cinema where this review was conducted. Despite the limiting nature of cinema showings this play lost very little because of it. The play revolves around the hopes and fears of its central characters in the midst of Aids crisis in 1985, while this seems a bleak and depressing prospect for a play it easily manoeuvres around it finding humour throughout. While the play is split in two each part can be enjoyed on their own, with part 1 offering the more grounded side of the tale.
In spite of the length of the play the play never loses pace, it keeps the story moving, as the character’s traverse from one situation to another. The play has a star studded cast including Nathan Lane, Andrew Garfield and Russel Tovey, each of these are paired off with the remaining cast and carry a third of the play’s story each. Garfield’s Prior Walter is the lovelorn sufferer as; after he contracts Aids; his lover Louis (as played by James McArdle) flees unable to deal with Prior’s impending demise. Meanwhile Lane’s role of Roy Cohn; an influential lawyer bending to rules to see things go his way; denies the possibility of being gay insisting he is simply a powerful man who occasionally sleeps with men, having contacted Aids during once such encounter, he refuses to let anyone find out insisting it’s cancer instead. The final story thread follows Tovey’s Mormon husband Joe Pitt, along with his Valium addicted wife (played by Denise Gough) struggle both to come to terms with the possibility Joe is gay, along with issues brought up by his wife’s delusions. The play cleverly interweaves all three plots throughout.
The play juggles the balances between light and dark adamantly, allowing for some truly powerful scenes by Garfield as he struggles to cling to life with every breath, his performance embodies the gay fantasia that Angels claims to be. Though while Garfield dominates the heart string pulling side of the performance, it is Lane’s comedic side that steals most of the laughs as the play opens with him on the phone shouting and cussing setting the tone for what’s to come. Angels is at its strongest though when it finds a way to bring Tovey, Lane and Garfield together during the latter’s delusions, speaking too much on this scene would spoil its fun but it’s certainly the highlight of the entire production.
Despite the play’s gloomy setting, the stage is regularly broken up into several sets of rooms lit by neon lights, conveying the feeling of traversing the red light district a fitting parallel for the play’s sexual story. These sets revolve around the stage, acting as both individual locations and coming together to form others, the idea is simple but effective and never detracts from the performance.
The biggest issue Angels suffers from comes largely through McArdle’s Louis, the issue isn’t in his performance per say but the nature of the story. The play being set in the middle of the Reagen’s reign as President was a time of major political upheaval and it’s a fact McArdle doesn’t shut up about. In one instance McArdle goes on a near 15 minute rant about liberalism, socialism, new deals and so on, it was one of the rare moments in the production I lost interest. Without a little prior knowledge on this era of American political history you may struggle to keep up with this aspect of the production – even if it does find a way to make it relevant to today’s issues with Trump.
Angels Par t 1 is by all means is a triumph of theatre, it keeps what could be a very dull, very long piece exciting, fresh and innovative – but its true triumph is having such a master class cast.