Review: “A lesson in performance from some real greats” ★★★★ Angels in America, National Theatre

Binge watching box sets is the way many of us now watch television programmes, but does the ritual of chopping up a story into 45 minute episodes translate when it comes to a stage production?

Having more than two acts isn’t a new thing in theatre, but there seems to be a trend towards expecting audiences to commit to spending whole days in an auditorium, with Harry Potter and the Cursed Child packing them in and now the National Theatre expecting theatergoers to endure a posterior tingling eight-hour marathon with their production of Angels in America.

The question is: does Tony Kushner’s epic two-part gay fantasia warrant such a vast amount of viewing time? The answer is, in the most part, yes.

You see, it’s all to do with character development. Like the pilot episode of a new Netflix series, you have to invest in the introduction to the tale before you can fully immerse yourself in the glorious elaboration and with Angels in America, you must first get past the fact that most of the leading characters aren’t very likable.

It’s 1985 and Roy Cohn (Nathan Lane) is a powerful and cutthroat city lawyer in a time when the AIDS epidemic is at its height. Admitting that he is a homosexual is the path to career suicide so he denies his sexuality. He’s not the only one either, with Mormon Joe Pitt (Russell Tovey) and his wife Harper (Denise Gough) struggling to come to terms with the truth behind their troubled marriage and the neurotic Louis (James McArdle) failing to commit to his relationship following his partner’s deadly diagnosis.

It’s a complicated and yet powerful story, which for the most part, sucks you in and with some truly masterful performances from the all-star cast, keeps you on the edge of your seat for sizeable portions of the theatrical slog.

Part one (Millennium Approaches) is much stronger than part two (Perestroika) mostly because it sticks to the reality rather than the fantastical, so the plot whips along. The inexplicable introduction of Angels into the action during the second installment, which I can only assume is to highlight our own mortality, does feel like a needless tangent.

There are stand out performances from Russell Tovey and Nathan Lane, with both capturing the torment of hiding your true being, while Andrew Garfield does a great Norma Desmond impression as Prior Walter – all diva and dazzle – even when he is facing his untimely demise. Although excellent, Denise Gough’s character is just a bit too incidental and James McArdle gets somewhat weighed down by Louis’ heavy dialogue at times.

Ian MacNeil’s design is hugely impressive and the sound by Ian Dickinson creates a perfect inter-dimensional feel with grand brass interludes mixed with eerie elevator music.

Watching both parts in one day is a bit mind-blowing and I think those who are spreading it over two nights will get a far better experience, by having a break from the intensity.

This is a theatrical box set well worth watching however, with important political themes, which easily translate to our modern socio economic climate and a lesson in performance from some real greats.

Angels in America is running at the National Theatre until 19 August.

Photo by Helen Maybanks

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