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REVIEW: Angels in America celebrates a triumphant, dazzling return to the London stage

REVIEW: Angels in America celebrates a triumphant, dazzling return to the London stage

Andrew Garfield as Prior Walter in the London revival of Angels in America

There’s always the danger of a play about the AIDS crisis, set in 1980s America, feeling like a dusty, outdated period piece.

London’s National Theatre’s revival of Angels in America doesn’t.

Instead it marks the play’s triumphant, bold return to the UK stage, carried by a stellar cast and a story as relevant as ever.

It is as hilarious as it is moving, as poignant and relevant as Kushner’s epic is often downright bizarre.

The company delivers a dazzling seven-and-a-half hours, from the haunting realism of part one, Millennium Approaches, to the ever more fantastical seen in Perestroika (part two).

Angels in America centers on two couples – one gay, one straight. Louis Ironson and his lover, Prior Walter, face troubles when Prior is diagnosed with AIDS; Mormon Joe Pitt and his wife Harper battle a valium addiction, career opportunities and Joe’s homosexuality.

Andrew Garfield is boyish and intense as Prior Walter, the play’s focal point.

He makes you feel for and with the man without ever eliciting pity, even when his body is riddled with sores and his ex-lover’s new lover’s Mormon mother has to escort him to hospital.

True to Kushner’s script, Prior is fantastically camp – all fluttering hands, overly sweet affectations, and a heaped dose of shady sass.

On rare occasions it does feel like Garfield is playing it up a little too much, but it does not cheapen his performance.

There is a rawness to him as Garfield defiantly limps across the stage, refusing to give in.

One minute he is yelling himself hoarse as he lets out all the anger and fear about his situation and the boyfriend who silently deserted him. The next minute he is back to biting wit and everything being fabulous.

His voice cracks, he shrieks, at just the right times, painting his character as someone equal parts in and out of control. He dresses like a diva – throughout Perestroika in a dramatically swishing black coat, head scarf, and large sunglasses, reminiscent of the old Hollywood stars – and often behaves like one, too.

But the greatest thing about him is how, even at his most terrified, he has an urge to keep moving forward. Even when begging the Angels to take the prophecy off him and give him more life instead, Garfield’s Prior is not defeated.

There is a driving urgency to Angels in America. It starts fairly timid, but once Prior’s AIDS diagnosis becomes real, far beyond the first lesion he shows his boyfriend Louis at his mother’s funeral, everything unravels at ever-growing speed.

Louis (James McArdle, sans his natural broad Scottish drawl, but with all the energy), Prior’s partner who can’t cope with the fact that his long-term boyfriend is dying of AIDS, falls into a rebound with straight-laced Joe (Russell Tovey).

Tovey is perfect as the seemingly picture-perfect, but deeply closeted, Mormon husband – from his light grey suit to his perfect accent.

His carefully uptight front beautifully starts to unravel over the course of the play, yet always manages to catch himself before the final drop.

But as he can’t hide his sexuality anymore, and falls in love with Louis, he drives his wife Harper (Denise Gough) further away.

She embarks on her own hallucinatory trip to Antartica – and Gough excels with every line. She brilliantly changes between raging and vulnerable, and there is an underlying despair to her portrayal.

When she finally finds her feet, no thanks to her mother-in-law and the unlikely friend she made in Prior, Gough’s entire posture changes,

Nathan Lane as Roy Cohn, the real-life closeted lawyer who died of AIDS and passed it off as liver cancer so as to not out himself, is one of them.

Although he is a more peripheral part to the play’s central group of four, he is immediately as unlikeable as Cohn himself was during his lifetime.

Lane’s Cohn starts out as a choleric self-described octopus, juggling phones and demands while discussing the benefits of Cats and Lage Cage Aux Folles on Broadway.

But when his body starts to betray him, and with a disease he believes only homosexuals – to which Cohn does not count himself, despite having sex with men – get, Lane makes the monster look pitiful.

The disease doesn’t fully strip away his brashness, or his ultra-conservative and offensive views, but it brings to light something else: his inability to be cut off from the world he owned.

You love to hate him, and it’s as comedic as it is satisfying to see him haunted by the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg (Susan Brown), whom he sentenced to death by proxy.

But Lane’s performance makes him nearly appear human, especially towards the end of his life when he is emaciated and weak.

So when his nurse Belize (charming and an instant winner: Nathan Stewart-Jarrett) says he ‘almost feel[s] sorry for you’, you’re inclined to agree.

And then there is the Angel (Amanda Lawrence), that divine being who crashes through the ceiling one night. Except in this version she doesn’t. Director Marianne Elliott has her appear in a flash of light, momentarily blinding the audience, and rising from the ground.

This haggard Angel, draped in a tattered American flag and with her wings looking more like broken leaves than lush feathers, is not what any holy scripture promised.

She is an image of America and its gay community, torn apart by politics, sexuality, and the raging AIDS crisis which President Reagan is still ignoring.

Like in War Horse, Elliott uses puppetry and stunning movement to bring Lawrence’s heavenly herald alive. She is surrounded by Angel Shadows (Stuart Angell, Laura Caldow, Claire Lambert, Becky Namgauds, Stan West, Lewis Wilkins) who move her wings and make her soar.

They rarely stand still, reinforcing the uneasiness and the urgency with which matters are moving along.

Elliott’s production is supported by Ian MacNeil’s clever, mobile set design of turntables and dioramas. Fittingly enough it is sheltered by the dome of heaven, as becomes obvious later on, which looks more like industrial leftovers than the often-promised blue skies and soft clouds.

Despite the seemingly grim topic – the premise of eight hours about politics, sexuality and people dying of AIDS doesn’t sound too cheerful – Angels in America is surprisingly lighthearted.

It is, after all, not just a story about AIDS, but also about politics, fear and, maybe surprisingly, love. During its London debut, 25 years go, it taught people that gay men can and do love just like their straight counterparts. In 2017, it serves as a reminder of how far we have come, and how far we have yet to go.

In those moments, Angels in America is undeniably a period piece. But with the current situation in the United States, and the Trump Administration taking more and more steps backwards, it might just turn into our reality again.

Angels in America runs at the National Theatre until 19 August. There will be NT Live screenings on 20 July (Part One) and 27 July (Part Two).