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The HIV Monologues (Ace Hotel, London): Review

HIV monologues Positively adorable. Kane Surry (top) and Denholm Spurr (bottom). Photograph: Courtesy of Eliza Goroya.

Vital, challenging, and incredibly clever, The HIV Monologues is an essential part of the modern discussion on HIV/AIDs.

Alex is about to meet the man of his dreams on a date, but it all goes wrong when he finds out Nick is HIV positive. When Alex auditions for a play about HIV written by Barney, his attitudes change. But everything is much more closely connected in The HIV Monologues than Alex realises as pasts and presents intertwine.

Writing

People think HIV/AIDs is no longer a big topic, but they couldn’t be more wrong. The disease is still with us, although living with the disease is no longer the death sentence if used to be. The rise in Chemsex and discussion around PreP means that it’s becoming a big topic once more, especially as this is reviving age-old homophobic vitriol in the right-wing press, as well as causing us to notice the stigma HIV+ LGBTQ experience from within their own community. But what can a new play about HIV/AIDs tell us about the disease that other plays, such as As Is and Angels in America haven’t told us already?

Patrick Cash, who has also recently written The Chemsex Monologues, has penned a intricately intertwined series of soliloquies on the subject. But The HIV Monologues is far from retracing old ground on the topic. What Cash does is bring a bang up to date contemporary perspective on the subject that doesn’t pull any punches, but simultaneously doesn’t preach.

The HIV Monologues feels incredibly human and organic. All characters are far from stereotypes and caricatures, but neither are they so earnest or severe that they feel like ploys rather than people. Alex, the character that acts as the central catalyst for The HIV Monologues, is flawed and incredibly prejudiced and ill-informed about HIV. But he’s not portrayed by Cash as the most evil or awful person in London. In fact, Alex often makes you laugh out loud at both his hubris and his pratfalls, as well as actually being likable, if not a bit of a dick. What this does is that it makes you realise that stigmatic attitudes towards the disease is actually something that can be prevalent in the even the most “nicest” and normal of people, and not something reserved for Nigel Farage. Instead of chastising Alex, The HIV Monologues shows him as someone who becomes informed and stronger for it. But at the same time, Cash doesn’t shy from the hurt and damage such attitudes cause.

Likewise, Nick is not some shallow portrayal of someone living with HIV either. He’s not some cliched “inspirational icon” or some maudlin tragedy. He’s a man who is struggling to come to terms with his condition, trying to be something positive but finding it hard. Nick’s character is richly written as someone who really wrestles with telling the difference between what he thinks is self-love and what is actually self-loathing, as well as trying to stave off the hideous negativity that stigma, like Alex’s, has on his life. He’s an incredibly complicated by completely organic and believable character, and this gives you an exquisite insight into the issue via an incredibly intimate and realistic perspective.

Cash doesn’t ignore HIV/AIDs past either, because it’s still utterly relevant. With characters Barney and Irene, we get personable glances at both the strides towards hope and life in a time of crisis, and the battle against homophobia and prejudice that was. As well as the incredibly clever constant crossing of paths of characters directly featured in The HIV Monologues ore merely mentioned, Cash fundamentally links and breathes essential necessity into both LGBTQ history and present, making The HIV Monologues a living and incredibly important piece.

There’s really nothing wrong whatsoever with Cash’s writing and portrayals. Such human characters and such engrossing perspectives make it very difficult to disengage. The only possible foible I think anyone could pick with The HIV Monologues is the “sex scene”. I’d argue that a natural and positive portrayal of sex in the context of HIV is absolutely necessary, as sex with HIV+ partners is still surprisingly taboo and considered “bad”. It does stick out a bit (pardon the pun) from the rest of The HIV Monologues in tone, but to omit it would be an unhelpful skirting around the issue that desperately needs to be talked about.

Direction & Production

There isn’t much production, but The HIV Monologues doesn’t need it. The stage consists of just a chair on a bare stage: it’s monologues, after all, and it’s the characters’ voices that are the start and the end of the play. However, director Luke Davies ensures that the actual performances don’t feel as empty as the stage looks. Davies uses characters overlapping and coming in and out of the audience to make The HIV Monologues feel immediate and enveloping. This isn’t just something that happens in front of you that you observe and then it’s done: it’s something that is around us and involves us. Furthermore, despite giving all actors time to deliver their monologues, there’s always a push of energy throughout, ensuring that the speeches always remaining interesting and sparky and never draws close to self-indulgent droning on the character’s behalf.

Performances

You’d think The HIV Monologues were actually based on the actors, given that their performances are so damn good. Denholm Spurr’s lovable yet cocky actor confidence seems to come so naturally to him as Alex, yet has an irrefutable charm and affection that makes you follow him intently on his journey. Kane Surry actually feels like he could actually be going through a challenging crisis of coming to terms with the disease as if it actually were him, irregardless of his own real life status: everything about Surry’s performance is unbelievably personal and moving. Jonathan Blake brings an intoxicating bombast as the famed writer who faced HIV/AIDs and the 1980s with wit and determination, making him into a real everyday angel who has an actual story to tell. And Charly Flyte’s perofrmance as the Irish Catholic nurse who is driven by compassion and humanity is both rousing and utterly heartbreaking as she puts everything into the character’s beautifully graceful fight against homophobia and a passion for caring. There isn’t one weak member of the cast, and each one completely owns their roles with an intimate personality that means you can never tear yourself away from their performances, or even chose a favourite.

Verdict

The HIV Monologues is a crucial piece of LGBTQ theatre. Not only is it vastly important, it is also incredibly enveloping and moving. Even if you consider yourself clued up on HIV, this is a revelatory keystone of modern LGBTQ life.

The HIV Monologues plays at the ACE Hotel, London, E1 6JQ, until 19 February 2017. Tickets are £15 (concessions available). To book, visit www.eventbrite.co.uk.