Saturday, 10 August 2013

Theatre Review: As Is (Finborough)

The Finborough Theatre’s admirable commitment to staging “gay plays” old and new continues with Andrew Keates’s deft and lively take on William M. Hoffman’s award-winning As Is. Keates’s production is, in fact, the first British revival of Hoffman’s play since its 1987 UK premiere at the Half Moon Theatre. And it proves a welcome occasion all around.     
The importance of the play lies in its portrait of the effect of AIDS on New York’s gay community, told in a way that’s equal parts intimate and expansive. The focus is on Rich (Tom Colley), a young writer just beginning to find success with his first book of poems. When we meet him he’s in the throes of bitterly breaking up with his long-time lover Saul (David Poynor) the better to pursue a too-good-to-miss liaison with a younger guy, Chet (Tom Kay). But the revelation that Rich has AIDS ends up sending him back to Saul who, despite his anger, grief and confusion, finally elects to stand by his man.     

Hoffman structures As Is as a series of sharply rhythmed scenes - some naturalistic, some highly theatrical - that explore Rich's relationships not only with Saul, but also with his friends and family, with healthcare professionals, and with a diverse spectrum of the gay community. To this end, the action is whisked through several locations – from sex club to support group, city street to hospital –as the piece presents the divergent reactions to Rich’s condition and shows other characters dealing with the illness, not to mention the fear and ignorance that surrounds it.
Hoffman’s writing of the play was inspired by the deaths of a large number of friends from AIDS in the early eighties and the urge both to commemorate and to overturn prejudice is evident throughout. Across a relatively short running time, the piece attempts to provide as many perspectives as possible, from that of a former nun, now a hospice worker (Clare Kissane), who describes the “privilege” of working with the dying, to that of a pregnant woman (Anna Tierney) who reports the reaction of her neighbours to the fact that she has the disease. 

The material’s occasional dips into TV movie-ish melodrama – notably in a reconciliation scene between Rich and his brother  - are mitigated by a surprising amount of humour: Hoffman makes most of his characters jokers, ever ready with a quip or a quote no matter how grim the circumstances that they or those close to them are facing. Thus a play about approaching death feels full of life.

Returning to the Finborough following his recent successes with ROOMS – A Rock Romance and his revival of another iconic gay text, Martin Sherman’s Passing By, Keates delivers another confident production here, one that’s sensitively attuned to the play’s movements in mood and that manages the location shifts with economy: a necessity, if ever there was one, on the Finborough’s tiny stage. If the tone is often broad, and occasionally a bit shouty and shrill, Keates ensures that the quieter, less showy episodes resonate, more so, in fact, than the sometimes strained striving for theatrical effects tend to do.
For what Hoffman has written is, in essence, a love story, and one that captures Rich and Saul’s relationship in all its complexity and contradiction. Rich is no mere “nice guy” a la Tom Hanks’s Andy in Philadelphia but a temperamental and often selfish individual whom AIDS doesn’t magically rid of his characters flaws. Tom Colley’s dynamic, physical performance conveys all that – witness the withering disdain with which he regards and discards a niece’s get-well-soon card – while also suggesting a latent vulnerability beneath the caustic wit, and painfully showing Rich’s deterioration.

He’s expertly matched by David Poynor who communicates the concern and frustration of the lover – and reports a late epiphany – without sentimentality. (Though the actor could work on Americanising his “h’s.”) Whether recalling their promiscuous (or, in Rich's terms, “anti-authoritarian”) sexual histories, or fighting for real or for play, these two suggest a genuine history together; you believe in them completely as a couple, and their dynamic builds convincingly to an admirably subversive and moving final moment.

If certain key characters feel underwritten by comparison, the production’s eight actors - most of them multi-tasking across several roles and often serving as a Chorus of sorts – manage to sketch some vivid creations: Jordan Bernarde and Paul Standell, in particular, do a stand-out duet as two workers on a health service telephone line (“Our motto is: ‘On me, not in me’”) in one of the best- written scenes.  As Is’s significance in 20th century American drama may lie, ultimately, in its status as a snapshot of its moment, but Keates and his cast certainly succeed in making the play’s human heartbeat heard.   
Booking until 31 August. 

Reviewed for British Theatre Guide.

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