first night

Angels In America

Nicki Orrell reviews the final DST production of the year.

Angels in America (Part One: Millenium Approaches and Part 2: Perestroika) tells the story of eight people and the impact the AIDs crisis of the 1980s had upon their lives. It’s a beautifully written script, quite rightly described in Nikhil Vyas and Tyler Rainford’s director’s note as the ‘magnum opus’ of Tony Kushner’s career. Exploring themes of love, religion, loss, insanity and sexuality, the script in itself makes this a fascinating piece to watch, but combined with an inspired production team and an unfathomably talented cast it becomes quite frankly, unmissable.

The inclusion of music really aided the feeling of the production; I would commend the a capella version of New York, New York that occurred in Perestroika as a personal favourite- the bitter sarcasm and hopelessness that shone through in this moment really conveyed how desperate the characters’ situations had become. Additionally, the choice to play music lightly under a lot of the scenes really worked, with the choice of music having clearly been thought through well. A few problems did occur however, with Millenium Approaches having this music played at a volume slightly too low which meant the music became an irritant rather than an aid. However, by Perestroika this problem was fixed, and the decision to play over the scene changes maintained the energy far better than the previous night. One other small issue would be the choice of some songs, whilst for the most part they worked very well, the inclusion of Thus Spake Zarathustra made the angel’s arrival seem more farcical than impactful and this could easily be remedied by a choice of lesser-known music.

The choice to stay true to Kushner’s original decision to never have a full blackout certainly paid off. This kept the play alive at every moment- to stay engaged during the entirety of a seven hour production is an experience I never expected to have. Sometimes actors would have done well to stay slightly more in character during these partial blackouts, Andrew Shires (Prior) was slightly too sprightly when setting up and jumping into his hospital bed which was a bit jarring to watch. Overall though, the directors must be commended for this production, the level of thought, detail and inspiration that went into the piece is apparent and overwhelming.

The set is also to be commended, the attention to detail was truly astounding. Whilst sparse, every item on stage was clearly thought through. It was clearly apparent that costumes were going to adhere strictly to 1980s fashion, to the credit of Laura Littlefair- head of costumes, and each set piece, from the IV drip to the diorama cover were created to be absolutely realistic. The decision to hang the telephones from the flies was particularly spectacular. The one issue I would here would be that more attention could have been applied to the creation of the American flag background. This again, is this reviewer being particularly anal about detail, but the fact that the stripes were unevenly distributed, that too few of them existed and the fact that the stars were sewn on rather randomly did jar slightly for me. However, the symbolism behind it and the overall appearance were, once again, spectacular.

The entire ensemble should be incredibly proud of their performances. There was not a single weak link amongst the cast. Indeed, there is even a case for this being the highlight of many of their performances at Durham. It feels a disservice not to congratulate each one individually. Theo Harrison brilliantly portrayed ruthless New York lawyer, Roy Cohn. His energy and aggression were incredible and he often delivered the funniest moments of the piece. Carrie Gaunt’s vulnerability and mental distress as Harper Pitt was heartbreaking to watch, and the sometimes childlike wonder she epitomised was performed with immense skill. It would be safe to say that there was not a note wrong with Gaunt’s performance. Sophie Allen was alluring and powerful as the angel, though a special mention should be made to her portrayal as a slightly insane homeless woman which, for me, was the acting highlight of the entire show. Jasmine Price in this piece showed herself to be one of the most versatile actors in Durham, with her seamless transitions between character being so apparent that she could have probably performed the whole play single handedly and still differentiated between every single part. She was truly a joy to watch, particularly as Hannah Pitt, the Mormon mother of Joe Pitt, with her grappling between her morality and her faith becoming a riveting conundrum. Adam Simpson, as Joe Pitt, should be immensely proud. His more emotional scenes were riveting to watch, and one could almost feel his agony. Qasim Salam was wonderfully acidic with his delivery of many lines and maintained his character flawlessly to such a point where I couldn’t imagine him as anyone but the fiery Belize. Andrew Shires, as Prior Walter, maintained incredible physicality whenever the lights were up. His anger at the unfairness of the situation was almost palpable. One thing he does need to take more care over, however, would be to vary his vocal tone more. Often, large portions of his speech were spent shrieking, when withdrawing into a quieter or lower tone at some points would often have more impact. Finally, Sandy Thin did wonderfully as the confused Louis Ironson. Often loathsome, sometimes pitiable, Thin potrayed Louis with a difficult to capture humanity that we often hate to see within ourselves. His understated delivery provided a nice contrast to the often intense performances within the production and his conversations with Salam were often some of my favourite moments. However, he could, like Shires, take care to vary his tone slightly more, as his understated delivery sometimes came across as slightly flat.

Accents were, overall, very good. All the actors should be commended for this, though some should be careful not to slip back to their original accent during more emotional moments. Thin and Simpson particularly struggled with this, with Simpson needing to decide whether he had a New York accent or his original Utah accent as he often swung between the two in the middle of words and Thin needing to be careful about reverting to Received Pronunciation, as this was a slight problem at the beginning of Perestroika. This, however, is me being fairly pernickety as this is some of the best accent work I have seen in Durham. I particularly enjoyed the level of detail that went into Harrison’s accent as he did not just succeed in producing a general New York accent, but rather one very specific to a Jewish New Yorker in the 1980s. I also admired Salam’s southern sass. A special mention on this front should go to Price, who effortlessly altered her accents between characters, achieving the subtle differences between US states that are so rarely achieved due to a normal reversion to General American.

As I said before, Rainford and Vyas mention that this piece is Kushner’s ‘magnum opus’ as a script. Perhaps they should also consider this their magnum opus as a directed piece. It is a rare feat to pull off Angels in America successfully, especially in competition with the critically acclaimed mini-series, but these two have done so and they should be proud of all they have achieved. It is almost unimaginable to me that I would have missed this production, as it is one that should be used as a benchmark for quality for all Durham Student Theatre productions to come.

25 June 2016

The views expressed in the reviews and comments on this page are those of the reviewer, and are not representative of the views of DST or Durham University.
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