Angels In America – Part One: Millennium Approaches

BETH GREAVES thought this ambitious production got lost somewhere, becoming pretentious instead of profound.

ADC angels in america Guy Woolf Hellie Cranney jack mosedale julian mack paul adeyefa

ADC Theatre, 26th February – 2nd March, 7.45pm, £10/8
Director: Hugh Wyld

What with snow, flying angels, and quoting the New York Times’ promise of ‘a vast, miraculous play’ on much of the promotional material, this production of Angels in America is clearly ambitious.

Vast? Certainly. New York in the mid-1980s: there’s Ronald Reagan and dirty Brooklyn, black drag queens and white Jews, Ethel Rosenberg and gay Mormons. And angels. ‘Miraculous’ however is a tougher sell. Angels in America has the range, taking us from a loveless marriage to a drag queen’s apocalyptic hallucinations. But it just tries so hard. Despite having won a Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award, the word ‘clunky’ floated around the ADC bar, and I couldn’t agree more.

The writing groans under its own self-importance. Kushner’s standard operating procedure is to place a pair of characters in a genuinely moving situation – such as Prior (Jack Mosedale), having just told his partner of five years, Louis (Guy Woolf) that he’s terminally ill – and then end it with a long-winded speech on the nature of Justice, Faith and Politics. It only seems right to use capital letters, because the play beats you over the head with how Profound and Important this all is, whilst failing to be original or thought-provoking.

This is even more painful since, when Kushner’s script sticks with snappy and brusque interplay between the characters, it works perfectly. “God doesn’t talk to me,” unstable housewife Harper (Hellie Cranney) quivers. “I have to make up people to talk to me.” There’s also a sparkling humour (“I heard on the radio how to give a blow job”), particularly in Prior’s friend (the hilarious Paul Adeyefa). Yet Kushner bogs down scenes with unwieldy ‘deep’ speeches until my patience ran out.

As a result, the acting is difficult to judge. Everyone handles the comedy well. The laughter bubbled around the theatre, but it’s hard to carry emotion through in a fifteen-line treatise on The State of the Nation. Julian Mack – as unhappy husband Joe – lacks nuance, a pity as his repressed sexuality formed the cornerstone of the main plot. Woolf was good, but suffers by comparison to Mosedale, who delivers a raw powerhouse performance. Cranney’s unhinged, Valium-popping Harper is a thing of beauty.

Seven of the eight actors play multiple roles. While costumes differentiate between them well, the changes undermine the performances. It almost kills the illusion of the fragile Harper when Cranney shows up as a government big-shot for a single scene before retreating back to Harper. Holly Marsden is a good actress, but at times appears to play every minor character.

The only actor who pulls through Kushner’s stodgy prose unscathed is Max Upton, as brash lawyer Roy. Through him, Roy’s speeches on the America of the past resemble genuine characterisation, but there’s simply no getting around Kushner’s lack of subtlety.

That said, the scope and technology are impressive, and this is a truly brave choice. Alistair Cannon’s lighting played a key role in Prior’s hallucinations; the sudden blast of bright white light in the hospital room scenes is both striking and disorientating.

As patronising as it might sound, full marks for effort. A pity that it couldn’t have been sunk into a play that was genuinely important, rather than just pretending to be.