It has been a staggering 25 years since Angels In America made its debut at London’s National Theatre in 1992, with Tony Kushner’s epic ‘gay fantasia’ of a play quickly becoming renowned for its frank approach to the 1980s AIDS crisis… And its incredibly long running time.
After weeks of previews, Angels In America made its grand return to the very same theatre on Thursday, with the two-part play running at a total of seven hours and 45 minutes; which is actually just 10 minutes shy of how long it would take us to jet out to New York City, where the story takes place.
With part one kicking off at 1pm in the afternoon and part two due to end after 11pm at night, it’s safe to say that as we settled into our seats for the first segment of part one, Angels in America: Millennium Approaches, there was an air of nervous energy as we all silently wondered whether this show would be worth the amount of time that we will be investing.
The answer? Yes. Yes. Without a shadow of a doubt, yes. In fact, I’m sure that I wasn’t the only one who was willing for part two, Angels in America: Perestroika, to go on for even longer – reluctant to leave the magical world of Prior, Louis, Harper, Joe and Belize, although the phenomenal cast were no-doubt grateful for the two-show press day to finally be drawing to an end.
Angels In America follows three interconnecting stories between Prior, who is brutally abandoned by his boyfriend, Louis, after telling him that he has AIDS, Joe, a closeted gay mormon who is married to agoraphobic wife Harper, and Roy Cohn – a ruthless real-life lawyer who died of AIDS in 1986, but publicly insisted that he was dying of liver cancer because ‘AIDS is a homosexual disease’.
One of Angels main strengths has always been the bevy of brilliant characters that we as an audience are introduced to; each storyline is just as interesting as the last and each and every character is well-rounded, realistic, and is integral to the story – from the major to the minor characters, nobody feels like a spare part or surplus to the plot, which might also be a testament to the incredibly strong cast.
Hollywood hearthrob Andrew Garfield joins theatre favourites Russell Tovey, Denise Gough and Nathan Lane, as he takes on the complex role of Prior – a shrill, flamboyant gay man with more witty one-liners than you can shake a stick at but also a hidden vulnerability that will break your heart.
Garfield excels in giving Prior the layers that he needs in order to avoid becoming an empty stereotype of a sassy gay man; expertly switching between Prior’s defiant brave face and his agonising heartache at being abandoned by Louis in his hour of need.
Every character brings an element of comic relief to the script at times, something that is so necessary given the difficult subject matter, but it is Prior who got the most laughs out of the audience and Garfield managed to do this in a way that didn’t detract from Prior’s pain nor seem cheesy or out-of-place, finding a perfect balance between comedy and anguish.
The other character who delivers the perfect level of comedic gold is Belize, Prior’s best friend, Roy’s nurse, and often the voice of reason amid the increasing madness of the plot.
Played by the massively understated Nathan Stewart-Jarrett, Belize is the unsung hero of Angels In America, and arguably the thread that holds all of the other characters together.
Although the entire cast were faultless throughout the show, I’d argue that Stewart-Jarrett and Garfield were the definite scene-stealers throughout, with both actors lighting up the stage each time that they were on it – especially when they were on it together, with every scene between Prior and Belize being nothing short of golden.
Whilst the stellar cast and brilliant story are sure to be what gets patrons talking at the end of every show, it’s also important to not overlook the stunning set design and spectacular angels, particularly in part two, which is much more surreal and fantastical than the tame-by-comparison first part of the play.
For me, the most poignant and memorable scenes were the more intimate and honest ones – Belize putting egotistical Louis in his place, Prior bonding with Joe’s mother in his hospital bed and battling with his abandonment, Joe pouring his heart out to an uninterested Louis, however, it is the fantasy and surrealism that gives Angels the edge that sets it above every other theatre show in London at the moment.
Yes, the two parts combined do hold an incredibly long running time, but the gripping storyline and regular intervals will keep you coming back for more, as well as the impressive energy from the cast, with not a single actor faltering despite spending almost eight hours of their day seamlessly performing to a theatre full of people.
All in all, Angels In America is without a doubt the National Theatre’s show of the year, and it would be nothing short of foolish to let this impeccable and unique piece of theatre to pass you by without setting aside the time to watch it.
Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes is playing at the Lyttelton Theatre until 19 August – click here for more info.