The late 1970s were a pretty good time to be a young gay man. While not entirely acknowledged by the populace, there was at least a form of acceptance with a vibrant club scene in the bigger cities such as New York. The the 80s arrived and brought with it the horror of the AIDS epidemic which ripped through the community while governments stood by unsure what to do and bigots scared the world with tales of the ‘Gay Plague’. That’s what the history books tell us but what was it like living through those days? This is the theme explored by William M Hoffman’s play “As Is” running at the Trafalgar Studios.
The play starts with a lovely opening monologue from a hospice worker (Jane Lowe) a former nun with a wonderful turn of phrase and an ‘eyes wide open’ approach to life. From there we go to a New York loft apartment where Saul (David Poyner) and Rich (Steven Webb) are dividing their possessions following the break-up of their relationship. There is tension in the air as the two of them argue and bicker over silly items but while Saul doesn’t miss any opportunity to have a dig at Rich’s new boyfriend Chet (Giles Cooper) it’s obvious that Rich is distracted and after a while Saul manages to find out why. Rich has been diagnosed with the early onset of AIDS. In the scene that follows, we get to see the wide range of reactions to his news. His friends, Chet and lily (Natalie Burt) distancing themselves. His Brother (Dino Fetscher) being forced to choose between Rich and his ignorant scared wife and the Doctors (Bevan Celestine and Russell Morton) trying to be reassuring but ultimately powerless as the disease takes hold of Rich’s body. Rich himself doesn’t take the news well – not really surprising – and goes on a downward spiral of denial and anger as he comes to turns with what is happening to him. The one good thing in his life, though he takes a while to realise it, is Saul who remains there for him as Rich goes through his journey.
“As Is” is 30 years old and was written at the height of the AIDS epidemic. William M Hoffman could have written an amazingly dark and depressing play and let’s be honest there are highly emotional moments throughout the show. However, there are some wonderful moments of genuine laugh out loud humour in this amazing story. Andrew Keates direction is spot on from the lovely opening to the ending, there is not a single moment I would change, particularly when combined with Tim McQuillen-Wright’s design and Neill Brinkwoth’s lighting which turned the small and very intimate space of the Trafalgar Studio into every component of Rich and Saul’s world, with action occurring all around the audience. All of the actors were amazing with Natalie, Bevan, Giles, Dino, Jane and Russell playing multiple and very diverse roles superbly. They were all superb but for me the crowning moment for these was when the six of them gave a roll-call of those they knew that had died which in its simplicity really got me welling up – I’m even getting emotional now just remembering it.
Full credit has to go to David and Steven as the Saul and Rich. Their performance was outstanding in every respect. From their initial bickering and snide asides (writers of ‘Vicious’ take note on how it should be done) through the revelation of Rich’s condition and their individual reactions to it, the two actors are simply amazing. Every aspect of their relationship was completely believable and they would be such an amazing couple to be friends with as they go through life sampling the hedonism and freedom the age but still utterly devoted to each other. Saul is amazingly strong and while it would be so easy to portray Rich as a victim or someone to be pitied he never comes across like that. He is a young man going through a horrendous experience with only one possible ending and we go should feel honoured to share part of that journey with him.
In this day and age, when young gay men are willing to take stupid risks because we have medication that controls HIV and the press are more supportive of LGBT rights you could wonder if a play like this is still needed. But the reality is that there are still people out there with some of the attitudes displayed in the play and overall “As Is” is still relevant 30 years on. This production is so emotional and entertaining that I left the theatre, yet again, sniffling a bit and really hoping Rich and Saul really made fantastic use of their time together whilst at the same time giving a heartfelt prayer of thanks that, so far, I’ve not had to go through the horror they had to endure. A really awesome piece of theatre.
Review by Terry Eastham
New York City, 1985. Rich (Steven Webb), a young writer who is beginning to find success, is breaking up with his longtime lover, Saul (David Poynor), a professional photographer. However, Rich’s idyll with his new lover is short-lived when he learns that he has contracted the terrifying new disease AIDS and he returns to Saul for sanctuary as he awaits its slow and awful progress.
In a mosaic of brilliantly conceived short scenes, blending humour, poignance and dazzling theatricality, As Is captures the pathos of Rich’s relationship with friends and family, the cold impersonality of the doctors and nurses who care for him and the widely diverse aspects of New York’s gay community. This is a heartbreaking and unsparing examination of a deeply felt human relationship shattered by a mindless, destructive disease.
After a sell-out run at the Finborough Theatre in 2013, William M. Hoffman’s As Is now transfers to Trafalgar Studios with a stunning new cast and design. Using humour and sensitivity, As Is shatters the apathy and ignorance surrounding AIDS in the 1980s. Celebrating its 30th anniversary since first opening in New York, where it was hailed by critics as the most powerful play of the year, the significance and urgency of As Is has become even greater as more people than ever before are contracting HIV.
Steven Webb (House of Boys, The Inbetweeners, Betwixt) and David Poynor (The Tempest, Peter Pan, As Is) lead this stellar cast, reunited after appearing together in The History Boys at the Royal National Theatre in 2006/07.
Trafalgar Studios from 1st July – 1st August 2015
Saturday 4th July 2015