To Southwark’s Union Theatre for a new production of a very unusual show with one of the most intriguing titles I’ve seen for quite a while, Elegies for Angels, Punks, and Raging Queens.
This is not a play, nor is it a conventional musical, instead Elegies for Angels, Punks, and Raging Queens is a song cycle with music by Janet Hood and lyrics and additional text by Bill Russell. It centres around the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt and follows the individual stories of various people who have died from AIDS and have a patch on the quilt. Each story is different and very personal, but also really relatable for the audience. With one exception – Ailsa Davidson who plays Judith – the entire cast (Aidan Harkins, Althea Burey, Calum Gulvin, Charlie McCullagh, Chris Cahill, Fraser Leigh Green, Jackie Pulford, Jade Chaston, Jade Marvin, Kristine Kruse, Marcus Ayton, Matthew Grove, Michiel Janssens, Paige Fenlon and Rhys Taylor) play multiple first-person roles, telling their individual stories, and also act as an ensemble for other’s tales. And what stories they are. I loved the fact that the show doesn’t solely concentrate on gay men as being the only ones that can get the disease. It beautifully demonstrates that AIDS is no respecter of race, gender, age, sexual orientation, class or lifestyle. Anyone and everyone can be – and in the stories told are – affected.
Now, this could lead you think that Elegies for Angels, Punks, and Raging Queens is a really negative and depressing show – which is what I was expecting if I’m honest. But nothing could be further from the truth, The show is uplifting, optimistic and amazingly funny in places. Yes, some of the stories are heartbreaking – such as the man who, when he found out he was infected, went out to infect as many others as he could in revenge, or the hemophiliac who caught the disease because of a transfusion of untested blood (a tragedy this country is grappling with even today). But then there are the happy stories – the wonderful woman who, on being told she was infected, decided to literally shop till she dropped, or the man who, after his death got ‘quilt envy’ over the panel that his friends put into the quilt.
Full praise has to go out to the cast not only for their individual and ensemble performances but also for being able to remember and follow the complex movements and positioning that Director Bryan Hodgson has put in place to get the 16 strong team in the right places at the right time. Musical Director Henry Brennan’s piano along with Pippa Mason’s cello adds an appropriate soundtrack to the songs – and dances, choreographed by Adam Haigh – and the entire production, comes together brilliantly. Of the songs, two really stood out for me, “Celebrate” and “Learning to Let Go” both of which really connected with me emotionally.
So, was there anything about the production I wasn’t keen on? Well, the simple answer is no. Elegies for Angels, Punks, and Raging Queens could have been a deeply depressing serious of unhappy stores where AIDS is the winner. Instead, thanks to an excellent set of creatives and a truly wonderful cast, it is a show which touches the heart – and if I’m honest, reduced more than a few members of the audience to tears at times – but sends you back out into the world feeling uplifted and joyful for having been privileged to meet and celebrate the lives of these people who did not let their dying stop them enjoying life.
Review by Terry Eastham
Elegies for Angels, Punks and Raging Queens is a deeply moving tribute to those who have died from AIDS and the loved ones they have left behind. Originally titled “The Quilt”, this beautiful song cycle with lyrics and book by Bill Russell and music by Janet Hood, was inspired by the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt, conceived in 1985 in San Francisco to commemorate the lives lost in the AIDS pandemic. Other influences include Edgar Lee Master’s ‘Spoon River Anthology’.
The Union Theatre Proudly Presents
ELEGIES FOR ANGELS, PUNKS AND RAGING QUEENS
Presented by special arrangement with Samuel French Ltd, a Concord Theatricals Company
Book and Lyrics by Bill Russell
Music by Janet Hood
Directed by Bryan Hodgson
Wednesday 15th May – Saturday 8th June 2019
This production is being produced in support of the MAD Trust.