PLEASE do not be put off by the title or the subject matter (the scourge of AIDS).
Bryan Hodgson’s revival of Elegies for Angels, Punks & Queens is an uplifting musical that will leave you smiling, shedding a few tears, and at the end singing along as if you were down at your local Old Bull and Bush.
Joy and hope and love seep from its every pore. A quite remarkable production on so many levels. Full of verve. A celebration of youth with a cast that seem to enjoy every single moment of their time on stage – or sitting alongside it waiting for the spotlight to shine on them. It was lovely just to watch Jade Chaston (Sally and Claudia) and for that matter other cast members smile as they admired the performances of their colleagues.
The musical – lyrics by Bill Russell, music by Janet Hood – was inspired by the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt. This was unveiled 32 years ago to ensure friends, relatives and lovers had a way of commemorating the loss of those close to them who had succumbed to AIDS. Contributors provided a decorated panel in honour of those they had lost. Today, the quilt comprises more than 48,000 panels, weighs 52 tonnes and is the size of five football fields. Quite remarkable.
These panels frame the musical as one is laid on the floor before a member of the cast – speaking in the afterlife – tells how they became a victim of the virus. The stories, spoken in free verse, form a patchwork reminding the audience that in the 1980s AIDS spared few. It killed those who cared for AIDS sufferers (nurses accidentally pricked by an infected needle). It took the lives of those who received contaminated blood, it raged through families, and it decimated those who enjoyed unprotected sex – or indulged in it because they knew no other way. As the musical states, the virus is not picky about where it grows.
There are those whose response to AIDS was to contaminate others while in one of the musical’s funniest scenes a woman’s response to AIDS is to spend, spend and spend some more. ‘Die before the bill arrives!’
The cast’s enthusiasm is infectious in the nicest possible way. There are divas determined to go out in a blaze of glory (a marvellous Rhys Taylor), a despairing Vietnam veteran (Calum Gulvin) who feels let down at every twist and turn, and quite a lot of campness (Marcus Ayton and Chris Cahill excelling).
Some of the songs are excellent, especially Celebrate and the finale Learning To Let Go. Ailsa Davidson also delivers a quite beautiful My Brother Lived in San Francisco as Susan, a somewhat forlorn figure who spends most of her time roaming the stage – having lost brother Bud (an excellent Matthew Grove) to AIDS.
There is not a weak-link in the 16-strong cast with Ayton, Jackie Pulsford and Cahill possessing super voices. Henry Brennan (piano) and Pippa Mason (cello) lend strong musical support.
Although it takes a little time to get into the groove – and some modernising touches such as references to Grindr seem inappropriate – Elegies for Angels, Punks & Queens is a fitting tribute to those who lost their lives to AIDS. Refreshing fare.
Photos by Mark Senior