Angels in America is a three hour epic. Sitting in the auditorium before the performance began I wondered whether I would make it through. The front of the stage is empty, bar a simple coffin, which remains onstage for the entire first half. An effective symbol of the ever imposing spectre of death and the fate that Prior Walter (Ed Barr-Sim) faces. The red curtain hides all else from view. Opening the play is a challenge which falls wholly on the shoulders of Natasha Heliotis, who rises to it well. Alone on stage she is Rabbi Ibsidor, eulogising at a funeral, a eulogy addressed to us. The audience is the congregation. It is demanded that we suspend our disbelief and engage with the show.
This is a demand which continues throughout the entire performance. The rest of the set is similarly sparse but superbly designed. The stage is on two levels. The black space is dominated by steps and the somewhat gothic double bed they lead to. Other locations are created using only the bear essentials. These are brought on and off as required. Unfortunately this entailed scene changes by stage hands, which became tedious and sometimes interrupted the flow of the piece. The only saving grace of the scene changes were in their drawing attention to the brilliant soundtrack. However, the overall approach certainly proved that less is more. As an audience we are given the appropriate cues but must work to fill out the picture. We invest in the actors and trust in them to create the drama. The result is an audience that is captivated. In suspending our disbelief the script’s surrealism becomes believable and can be accepted and appreciated without the need for dodgy effects.
The actors deal with the surreal admirably. They appear from trapdoors and jumping off the back of the stage, they disappear with grace and a certain magic. Selali Fiamanya excels as Mr. Lies of the International Order of Travel Agents – a figment of Harper Pitt’s (Amelia Sparling) valium-fueled delusions. Sparling’s performance is also solid, if occasionally a little self-conscious.
The overall standard of acting in Angels is very high. Special mention should go to Barney White who is spectacular as Roy Cohn. He is utterly convincing and his American drawl never wavers. Ed Barr-Sim also convinces as Prior, who he plays with confidence and sensitivity. Arty Froushan successfully asks us to empathise with Louis Ironson, a man who leaves his dying lover. The conversation he shares with Fiamanya’s Belize is a highlight (despite the empty coffee cups, which are sipped on with great frequency). Dugie Young, as Joe Pitt was wooden at times – this was perhaps caused by the fact that his performance was too often directed to the wall – though he did warm up as the play ran on. Georgina Hellier switches between her four roles with expert differentiation and skill. The two Priors-from-the-past embody the humour than pervades the play.
At the play’s worst you will look at your watch in hope of the interval and ponder why the doctor is wearing Crocs when the play is set in the 1980s. At its best you will laugh, cry, revel in tension and reflect on the challenging themes of Tony Kushner’s script. Overall, much credit should be given to Jack Sain, who has dealt very well with a challenging piece.