It’s twenty years this year since more effective anti-retroviral drugs changed the nature of H.I.V. treatment and turned it from being a terminal illness to a more manageable condition for a large proportion of people. H.I.V. and A.I.D.S. are vast subjects to cover and Patrick Cash (author of “The Chemsex Monologues”) makes a valiant attempt to cover some ground through the experiences of four people told in five cleverly interconnected and well shaped monologues.
Alex is a young actor with a startling lack of knowledge about H.I.V. He’s not even entirely sure if you can catch it through kissing or holding hands. Nick has just met Alex on a Tinder date and has only learnt that he’s H.I.V. positive one week ago and is reeling from the news. Charly is a feisty young nurse in the 1980s, newly arrived from Dublin, who is caring for Eric, a charismatic young dancer who is one of the first people in the U.K. to die from A.I.D.S. Eric’s lover Barney is a playwright and has his life turned around when more effective treatments emerge to manage his H.I.V.
There’s some powerful and moving text in the monologues and Cash captures some of the horror and stigma, as well as some of the humour and defiance surrounding the health crisis in the 1980s and beyond. It’s uneven and the speech falters at points and feels stilted and unconvincing but at other times feels poetic and loaded with pathos. Where the piece falls down most is the humour. The drama is sandwiched between a romantic comedy of a storyline about the faltering relationship between Nick and Alex that feels like it’s entered into sit-com territory (think climbing out of toilet windows to escape a date and getting caught, choking on spinach while chatting to Elton John and you’ve got the gist). Whilst Nick feels convincing, Alex feels loosely drawn and improbable and the comedy falls flat. There are some witty lines and moments that should be riotously funny but sadly, they often flail and sit uncomfortably with the tone of the rest of the monologues.
In spite of some flaws this is a potent piece and there are four fine performances. Of note is Jonathan Blake. Jonathan was one of the first people in the U.K. to be diagnosed as H.I.V. positive and was featured in the film “Pride” (he was the flamboyantly table dancing character played by Dominic West). He’s a force of nature on the stage and is utterly compelling.
Tackling such a big subject is a brave thing to do and inevitably there’s some brevity to elements of the subject that the play tries to cover but there are some worthwhile and touching moments in this set of monologues.