A long queue snaked its way from Cambridge Circus, in the heart of London’s Theatreland, round the corner into Earlham Street, and round another corner into Tower Street. Was this throng of young people waiting patiently to cram into the Tristan Bates Theatre, described in its blurb as “an intimate studio venue”? No, they had come to receive a pack from a breast cancer charity. What was in the pack I could not tarry to find out, for it was nearly time for the show to start. But where was the Tristan Bates Theatre? The entrance was nowhere to be seen. It was, in fact, obscured by the horde of youngsters queuing to get into the building next door. I found it just in time.
There turned out to be a curious connection between the two events. One was concerned with the problem of breast cancer, while the other was concerned with the problem of AIDS. The “intimate studio venue”, which the audience had found their way into with perhaps less perplexity than your reviewer, was putting on a two-parter, with AIDS as the linking theme. Rather incongruously, the audience were handed glossy brochures as they filed in, supplied by the company sponsoring the production, the alarmingly-named Redtooth. This organisation promotes gambling, and proudly boasts that it hosts “the world’s largest live poker tournament”. Perhaps there was another curious connection, between gambling with one’s money and gambling with one’s health.
The latter was certainly highlighted in the first play of the two-parter, Safe Sex. Two men burst in to their flat, and immediately get in a clinch. Clothes are pulled off, and they land in bed, where one ravishes the other (under the modest cover of a duvet) despite his protests. The recipient of this favour then reproaches his lover for not practising safe sex. The time is the 1980s, and the AIDS epidemic is rampant. Much bickering follows, and the couple argue about how many men each of them has had, and about their different attitudes to personal hygiene. There is a long monologue about how it was more exciting to be gay when one had to conceal one’s orientation, and how the new openness was marred by the misapprehension that AIDS was a gay disease. In the end, the couple kiss and make up.
Safe Sex is described by its author, Harvey Fierstein, as his “personal response to living in the time of AIDS”. The audience at this fringe venue responded well to the bickering and the intimate details of the men’s sexual practices, but it is doubtful that it would be appreciated by a wider audience. Much more engaging was the second, and longer, part of the evening.
Receiving its UK première, On Tidy Endings concerns the untidy aftermath of someone’s death from AIDS. He had been married for 15 years and had begotten a son, but he then left his wife to live with another man, who nursed him through the long and unpleasant illness which preceded his passing. The division of his estate between his ex-wife and his (in effect) husband, with legal papers needing to be signed, necessitates the encounter between these two protagonists. Deena Payne and CJ de Mooi do indeed make their encounter what the blurb calls “a fiercely funny and poignant study of how losing a loved one takes on unique new qualities in the context of AIDS.” Again, there is much argument and recrimination, followed by reconciliation, but this time we care much more about the characters.
Deena Payne, a veteran of Emmerdale, adopts her soap opera persona for the role, and it works very well (though it makes it unlikely that she would have met her husband at university, as her character claims). There is also a bravura performance by her schoolboy son, who appears in short trousers at the beginning and end of the play, and takes a collection for the charity Make A Difference (‘MAD’), founded originally to help AIDS sufferers. On Untidy Endings may well appeal more to the gay community, but its theme is a universal one, and well-acted.