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“A marathon-style theatrical whirlwind”

Harry Hatwell is blown away by 'Angels in America' at the West End

Marianne Elliot brings back together the team behind The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time to create pure theatrical magic. For the first time since its world premiere in 1992, Angels in America is back in London’s National Theatre. For the 25th anniversary production of Tony Kushner’s contemporary masterpiece Marianne Elliot directs a stunning cast of stars from both the UK and US, including Nathan Lane, Denise Gough, and Russell Tovey.

Set against the backdrop of the 1980s AIDS crisis, Angels in America follows an intricate love story through the trials of finding one’s identity.

Exploring themes of homosexuality, religion, and societal change, Kushner’s (slightly updated) play features a hotchpotch of characters as they approach the new millennium, concerned with what the future may hold for them and what they represent in society.

There is, with the last lines of Part Two: Perestroika, a beautiful and highly powerful message of an eternal push for progress, whatever that may mean.

At four hours and ten minutes long, during previews, I hope that I may be forgiven for having only watched Part Two: Perestroika which sees the infamous lawyer Roy Cohn (Nathan Lane) meet his match in Ethel Rosenberg (Susan Brown)—the woman who he had executed for treason—and Harper Pitt (Gough) finally come to terms with the reality of her husband’s homosexuality.

At the same time, Louis Ironson (James McArdle) is grappling with the descent into AIDS of his former lover, Prior Walter (played by an impressive Andrew Garfield).

At the climax of the play, Prior ascends to heaven on a bright pink ladder and joins the Angels who look down on earth in despair. Offering a comic yet touching performance as Belize (both Prior’s best friend and Cohn’s nurse), Nathan Stewart-Jarrett is remarkable.

The play’s focus on developing a sense of belonging in an ever-changing America seems well-placed given the current political situation in the US, and there is definitely relevance in the play’s undertones of anxiousness at the future of the America.

Kushner’s skill is visible in the way that his drama about a particular moment of the 1980s lends itself very well to performance in the modern day. Angels in America certainly has as much to say to an audience in London in 2017 as it did to an audience in New York back in 1992.

Possibly symptomatic of the decay that Perestroika tries to deal with more generally in society, this production of Angels in America does not feature a beautiful, graceful Angel flying from the gods to swoop down and warn the characters of their fate.

Instead, Amanda Lawrence appears in a grimy and torn American flag flanked by devilish figures (‘Angel Shadows’) who control her puppet-style wings.

While the set was sometimes clunky, the preparations for changes definitely audible, and the rather annoying appearance of the ‘Angel Shadows’ pre-empted the end of every scene, the overall aesthetic of this groundbreaking production remained unharmed.

Angels comes with a health warning: bring some tissues and get ready for a marathon style theatrical whirlwind. Perestroika brings the fragments of the characters’ rather dysfunctional lives together. This ending leaves the audience with a sense of closure but also one of a refreshing and optimistic beginning, with new opportunities and settled identities.

Part One: Millennium Approaches and Part Two: Perestroika run in repertoire at the Royal National Theatre’s Lyttleton Theatre until 19th August. Though tickets sold out just hours after their initial release, day tickets are available and a monthly ballot is running on the NT’s website (plus check back on the listing to see if there are any returns).

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