Like Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Angels in America is split into two shows which add up to almost eight hours of theatre. It’s the theatrical equivalent of a box set binge.
Written by Tony Kushner, it’s set in the 80s at the height of the AIDS epidemic in New York. Ronald Reagan is in the White House and Republicans believe things are on the up; everyone else fears the apocalypse is nigh (the subtitle of the play is: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes). Although it’s 24 years since Angels made its London debut, it still feels very timely in the age of Trump.
In 2003, HBO made it into a TV series starring Meryl Streep, Emma Thompson and Al Pacino, and the National’s revival also has a sprinkle of Hollywood star dust. Andrew Garfield plays Prior Walter, a 30-year-old who’s just been diagnosed with AIDS and find himself abandoned by his neurotic boyfriend Louis (James McArdle). Garfield is camp, fragile, funny and heartrending – it’s hard to believe this is the same man who made a rather dull Superman.
Russell Tovey brings out the vulnerable side of Joe Pitt, a Republican Mormon who’s in denial about being gay. His wife (Denise Gough) spends her days popping valium pills and hallucinating. The Producers’ Nathan Lane is hilarious as a ruthless lawyer with a penchant for one-liners and bellowed expletives. When his doctor breaks the bad news, he insists it can’t possibly be AIDS because he doesn’t want to be outed.
Nathan Lane and Russell Tovey; main picture above: James McArdle and Andrew Garfield (photos by Helen Maybank)
Misfits alumnus Nathan Stewart-Jarrett is also fabulously camp as an ex-drag queen nurse, who sashays across the stage in a rainbow of outfits. But the biggest applause should go to Susan Brown who plays six characters including a grizzled rabbi and the world’s oldest living Bolshevik, while Amanda Lawrence metamorphoses into a handful more including an angel with eight-foot wings that flap gracefully with the help of four puppeteers.
The angel appears at the end of the part one and and director Marianne Elliott, who was behind War Horse and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, lets loose in part two. It’s seriously trippy: puppets come to life, characters wander into each other’s dreams and find themselves in Antarctica and heaven. Illusionist Chris Fisher worked on Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and the special effects are pretty spectacular (although that’s where the similarities end – this isn’t one for the kids). Ian MacNeil’s set design is also ingenious and slickly choreographed. There are dozens of scene changes but the action never pauses.
When it comes to scale, scope and ambition, there is nothing quite like Angels in America and the National Theatre has risen to the occasion, pulling out all the stops in a revival that is epic in every sense of the word.
The bad news? Most performances are already sold out, but hundreds of £20 tickets are being allocated in a series of ballots and it will also be broadcast live in cinemas in July.