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‘As Is’ by William M. Hoffman showing at the Finborough Theatre until Saturday 31st August 2013
William M. Hoffman's 'As Is' at the Finborough Theatre
Starring: Tom Colley, David Poynor, Clare Kissane, Tom Kay, Anna Tierney, Jordan Bernarde, John Hastings and Paul Standell
(By arrangement with Josef Weinberger Ltd)
Arion Productions in association with Neil McPherson for the Finborough Theatre
First London Production for more than 25 years
Months after Arion Productions produced ‘Rooms: a rock romance’ at the Finborough Theatre, the same bright creative team has again re-discovered another 1980’s gem – this time a powerful play about AIDS. Directed by award-winning director Andrew Keates and Produced by Andrew Harmer, ‘As Is’ is theatrical dynamite, appealing to a diverse audience on many different levels. Prejudice and injustice, ignorance, compassion and understanding are played out in this quality 80 minute long enthralling production. There is no interval since it would break up the dramatic intensity, but after the production I suggest heading off to the Troubadour for an after show drink.
Arion Productions in association with Neil McPherson for the Finborough Theatre has brought one of the greatest, most controversial AIDS plays of the 1980’s to the London stage. Written by American playwright William M. Hoffman ‘As Is’ focuses on a group of friends living at the height of the AIDS pandemic in New York, examining the devastating impact it has on their lives.
‘As Is’ first opened at the Circle Theatre on 10th March 1985 and was co-produced by the Circle Repertory Company and The Glines. Later that year it transferred to New York’s Lyceum Theatre on Broadway winning Hoffman huge critical acclaim. ‘As Is’ won the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Play (1985) and an Oblie Award (for Playwriting). Hoffman was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Play in 1985 and one year later he adapted ‘As Is’ for television.
Twenty-five years after ‘As Is’ premièred, the latest production is receiving rave reviews and giving audiences a historical window into how the ‘80s generation faced such a vicious threat to society. Thirty-one years since AIDS was first recognised as a medical condition in the US, the socio-political attitudes have thankfully changed over the years with understanding, compassion and medical advancements. William M. Hoffman’s play reveals the continuous suffering those afflicted with AIDS/HIV faced daily - their stigmatization by society; their inability to love and live as they would wish and the threat of being ostracised by family and those closest to them….and of course the ultimate threat of dying. Hoffman has written a psychophysiological script that spills over with themes of prejudice, fear, illness, love and humour; themes and emotions that have been adroitly written to produce a tempestuous, heart-rending intensity to the core subject. More importantly, Hoffman has written ‘As Is’ straight from the heart, work that is based on losing friends to AIDS and from his own intense research with support groups, a hospice worker and crisis centres.
Hoffman has often compared the way in which those first diagnosed with AIDS/HIV in the 1980s were cast aside by society in much the same way as the Jewish community was segregated in 1940’s Germany. Due to lack of understanding and media stories, vicious rumours spread concerning how the gay community was cursed. Other ignorant rumours circulated on how you could catch AIDS from toilet seats or from kissing someone on both cheeks. Everyone read the press reports of how Silver Screen Legend Rock Hudson died from an AIDS related illness. The medieval judgements from some in society dripped like poison from the mouths of merciless gossips. Rock Hudson had been starring in the hit television series ‘Dynasty’ and I remember his death sparking the rumour mills. Let’s not forget that it wasn’t until Princess Diana challenged society’s misconceptions of AIDS by holding the hand of a dying victim that attitudes began changing. The curtain-twitching brigade stopped snapping on their Marigold Gloves for fear of catching something on the London Underground. The government’s 1987 “Don’t Die of Ignorance” campaign began but it didn’t prevent the scaremongering.
Director Andrew Keates has perfectly drawn out the attitudes within the script to produce a finely tuned, dynamic production that punches high. It’s never over-sentimental, but focuses on the grit and determination of those suffering with AIDS. Keates cleverly balances this intensity with humour, as Hoffman had originally explored when he first wrote the play.
The casting by Benjamin Newsome is spot on; dynamics between the two main characters Rich (Tom Colley), a young writer facing the disease and his lover Saul (David Poynor), are played out with a sense of tenderness and anger. Tom Colley gives an electrifying performance as a victimised man who has lost his health and is cast aside by his family. He is faced with illness, no job and his eventual slide into St. Vincent’s Hospice. David Poynor is mesmeric as Rich’s wide-eyed lover who is left dealing with his beloved's illness, both emotionally and as the breadwinner. Saul is faced with having to watch Rich's slow demise and contemplates his own sense of desperation. There are some wonderful scenes where the couple reminisce about their early days of courtship, their promiscuous wild lives and confess to their numerous other dalliances. Poynor has a thin reedy moustache, like chaps you see with whippets and dominoes in the local pub; racked with desperate bedside helplessness he gazes Bambi-eyed at his hot-blooded Italian-looking lover, . He will clearly put up with anything from this man. No amount of pain will pull them apart. Jordan Bernarde gives a memorable, breathtaking performance as Rich’s estranged brother who wants nothing more than to reconcile with his dying sibling.
Clare Kissane’s portrayal of the Hospice Worker, particularly when talking to the audience about her days spent looking after the dying is touching and revealing. Irish Kissane’s bespectacled, cardigan clad interpretation has on first appearances the slight resonance of Mrs Brown but she proves anything but, recounting her days spent helping the dying when other carers cast them aside, forget to feed the patients or treat her with disrespect if she helps them. There’s a slow progression from piety to angst as she reacts to the sadness she sees around her.
Another key character in this production is played by Anna Tierney who portrays a young pregnant married woman who discovers she’s contracted AIDS from her husband. The character reminds audiences that despite the ‘80s labelling AIDS a “gay disease”, heterosexuals were also infected and children suffered too. Anna Tierney gives a powerful performance as a soul drowning in hopelessness as she quietly, albeit desperately, tries to comprehend having to live with the consequences of her spouse's unforgiveable actions.
Similarly, other characters such as Chet played by Tom Kay throws up significant questions when Rich finds himself attracted to him but obviously can’t act on it. Tom Kay depicts Chet as an American surfer dude – all white teeth, baseballs, power milkshakes and vitamins. Similarly, Paul Standell (Pat and others) and John Hastings (Marty and other roles) are terrific lynchpins linking scenes and emotions together with each character.
Andrew Keates and Assistant Director Maud Dromgoole have made skilful use of the Finborough’s modest space which at times sees eight actors on stage together (anyone familiar with the Finborough will know that's not easy to achieve!). The chorus and narrators are positioned towards the back of the stage with the main characters to the fore which works brilliantly; there is always something to see in the background but it never detracts from the main actions. Right from when the audience walks into the auditorium you become part of the story as actors emerge one by one into the St. Vincent’s waiting room surgery. They sit in front of the audience as if nervously waiting for a doctor’s appointment. Scenes are transformed from hospital to nightclub by clever use of disco lighting by Tim Deiling, sound by Composer Matthew Strachan and Sound Design by Will Jackson. The use of sound and background music to highlight emotions and set scenes works well.
Set Designer Philip Lindley has worked wonders with the small space. Roman pillars have been constructed to sit each side of the stage with the grand sign of ‘St Vincent’s Hospice’ inscribed boldly above them. There are school cloakroom lockers decorated with various posters and drawings of pin-up male models. The rough, ragged look of the boards at the back of the stage split away to reveal brick walls giving the building a dark, tatty, dilapidated look. The sobering sign on the front of the receptionist’s desk reads ‘One AIDS death every 30 minutes’ and similar posters are dotted over the walls with another reading: ‘How many of us will be alive for Stonewall 35?’ Lighting Designer Tim Deiling has also worked magic with a shimmer of pale green lighting bathing the set in a ghostly sheen. Excellent costume design by Pippa Batt who has thankfully kept the ‘80s look simple and not gone for the whole Billy Joel drainpipe jeans or mullets....but she has gone wild with moustaches! Credit must also go to Sarah Stephenson (Voice Coach).
Arion Productions and the Finborough Theatre once again successfully champion contemporary writing. Andrew Keates and Andrew Harmer have taken a gamble in producing emotive work that has lain dormant for some years, but which provides a historical perspective into how attitudes change within society in such a short space of time. ‘As Is’ chimes on every level - whether you have been ill yourselves, have nursed someone through ill health or have suffered injustice that's driven you to the brink, there are many reasons why this factional play resonates with so many audiences. Above all, 'As Is' has clearly been produced and directed from the heart just as William M. Hoffman first intended.
Tickets £16, £12 concession
except Tuesday Evenings £13 all seats, and Saturday evenings £16 all seats.