Misery came when I realised that I hadn’t seen EUTCO perform since 2012. That’ll be years of top quality student theatre that I’ve been missing, just because I’ve been too lazy to drive up the road. But with the bypass open, there’s no excuse. And blimey, the standard remains high.
The Exeter University Theatre Company staged ‘Angels in America’ by Tony Kushner at the Northcott Theatre between Wednesday 20 January and Saturday 23 January 2016. Directed by Caroline Lang and Isobel Knight, the company took big issues seriously and offered a night out that will leave a lasting impression.
Set in New York of the 1980s, we find couples dealing with difficulties with physical health and mental health either by guilt or sickness. The whole cast delight in the coarse humour that spills through the production, and the audience respond to every opportunity to laugh out loud in readiness for the next devastating moment to strike.
I could have watched Sophy Dexter’s Harper slip deeper into her fantasy world all night. The deterioration of Harper’s mental wellbeing is heartbreaking and the characterisation was so interesting throughout, even when she wasn’t the focus of the scene. If there’s a point at which you punch the air, it’s when Harper meets Prior, played by Henry Smith, two characters that can only meet in a hallucination between their worlds. As, in my view, the two characters easiest to sympathise with, and that get most of the funniest lines, the meeting is one of many triumphs on stage.
As Prior deals with the onset of AIDS, one of the most powerful sequences takes place immediately after the interval, as he starts to cough and ends on the floor in a pool of blood. Very uncomfortable viewing and all the better for it.
It has taken me a few days to realise just how much I appreciated Nick Cope’s performance as Joe, Harper’s husband, fighting his upbringing as a Mormon to accept the empty relationship and ready himself for life with a man. It shows how some parts of society have shifted so much since the 1980s that this is now a period piece. On first impressions I found Joe irritating and weak for not accepting his sexuality earlier, but it’s 21st Century eyes that see him that way. The struggle with faith and sham marriage is a reminder of how far we have come, and it is a credit to the performances that they have stayed with me and kept me thinking about them – I’m only sorry it took me time to realise how well realised it was.
This goes for all of the five central characters, as Oliver McLellan’s Louis deserts Prior when he needs him most, then explores different ways of living with the guilt of leaving his partner when he is most needed, through to Jason Pallari’s Roy, a lawyer hiding his sexuality and his ill-health to protect his position and his reputation. These are distinct characters, who each have stories that unravel in a mixture of good humour and tragedy. They aren’t always easy to like, but they are delivered with a humour that keeps you watching.
Whether minor characters are bursting out of sofas or sliding out from under hospital beds, drinking soup over burning bins or waiting to be picked up on a park bench there are a lot of cheerful cameo roles that actors make the most of. The staging is slick and the sound and visuals add to the experience.
There are certainly faces in this production worth keeping an eye on in the future in what was a powerful, thoughtful and haunting play. I suspect I’ll be worrying about Harper for weeks to come – somebody give me the script for the second part quickly, as I want to know what happens to everyone. If I gave scores at the end of my reviews, this would have the highest.
Last review from the Northcott: Sister Act
Last review of an EUTCO production: The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui