By Ben Lafferty
Perhaps no play has ever dramatised the panic, the uncomprehending abhorrence, of the AIDS epidemic better than Angels in America. It does so in ways too subtle and moving to be explained here, except to say that the bitter medicine of its polemic is delivered in the sugar pill of its fantasy. Its juxtaposition of revelatory imagination and decaying, mortal reality cuts to the bone.
Chanya Button doesn’t believe in cliques, but that’s okay, because cliques believe in Chanya Button. I’ve never been able to ascertain whether she’s considered one of Oxford’s finest directors because she has surrounded herself with talented, versatile actors, or if her coterie only seem so good because they get to work with her. The whys and the wherefores don’t matter nearly as much as the result, which is the closest Oxford drama comes to professional quality.
The cast are not uniformly excellent, but each would shine in most student productions. Tim Hoare is beleaguered as only a gay Republican can be, treating his character’s conflict with acumen and sensitivity. Acting opposite him, Natasha Kirk gives some occasionally shallow characterisation by playwright Tony Kushner a sympathetic dimension. Charlie Morrison has a scowling aggression straight out the pages of Tom Wolfe. Leo Marcus-Wan, appearing here in a supporting role, seemingly shimmers onstage. In a play that goes helter-skelter from whimsy to tragedy, he adds a playful sparkle, a cinnamon swirl on the cappuccino froth.
One or two of the performers struggle with the demands of American diction. The otherwise excellent Ellie Nairne is somewhat let down by an overly broad "Neuw Yawk" accent that wanders imperceptibly into a Mel Brooks impersonation.
This is the first time I’ve seen a believable couple on the Oxford stage and I’d always suspected that when I finally did, it would consist of two chaps. Both Gareth Russell and Colin Warriner are fine individually, but their chemistry as a pairing is joyous. Russell, in his lighter moments, is particularly effervescent. In one scene he toys with Hoare’s repressed sexuality with such blithe delicacy as to tear the audience between squirming discomfort and sniggering schadenfreude.
Oh, and another thing. It takes place in the Union Debating Hall. I hold no special veneration for the Union as an institution, but as a performance space it offers a unique atmosphere that none of Oxford’s airport-terminal theatres can match. It isn’t all good news. The hall is plagued by cacophonous acoustics, and a discreet clearing of the throat sounds like a barrage of howitzer fire. While the press (all two of us) were assured that this echo would be absorbed by a full audience, it seems uncertain whether the problem can be resolved altogether.
I haven’t given this show five stars because it is flawless, it is anything but. Button has a ludicrous amount of potential, and if nothing else you can consider seeing this show an investment in future dinner table conversation. You ought to see it not because it is history-making in the most literal sense, but because it is a rare example of ambition realised.