Tucked away behind the main Edwardian wedding-cake of a theatre in Wimbledon is a black-box studio theatre currently housing a revival of David Drake’s one-man show ‘The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me’, originally produced Off-Broadway in the early 1990s. Coming soon after the National Theatre’s revival of Kramer’s classic of the AIDS era, ‘The Normal Heart’, it allows us again to reflect on how well the activist plays of that era have aged as both drama and social commentary.
While ‘The Normal Heart’ stands up very well as drama, this monologue sadly seems rather dated now despite some powerfully poetic passages of writing, a technically accomplished production, and a quite outstanding solo performance at its centre. Spread just over an hour, the show consists of a series of semi-autobiographical episodes from a gay man’s life, starting with tender childhood and ‘coming out’ scenes and then moving to brasher more full-on exposition of life in the Big Apple – clubs, gyms, sex and relationships, and – inevitably – the impact and losses of HIV/AIDS, culminating in an eloquent threnody for the loss of so many friends. This must have made a big impact in 1993, but most of these themes have received fresher and deeper treatments since in – for instance – ‘Angels in America’ and ‘The Inheritance.’ The materials and themes seem familiar and, if you take away the bravura of the performance, the many scenes are no more than the sum of their parts.
But what a performance it is!
Bell is best known for his role in ‘Outlander’, and it is extraordinary that this performance, which offers such power and poise, and pathos is really his first major venture on a stage. There is a confined space in which to manoeuvre around a props chest placed centre stage, and yet Bell achieves real feats of athleticism and imagination to join up all the fragments of memory he has to bring to life. We see the diffident self-doubt of the adolescent morph into brash disco showmanship, aggressive bodybuilding at the gym, and confident political activism born of that first encounter with Larry Kramer. Throughout he maintains the integrity of the personality he is depicting – a man gradually finding confidence and a public identity in the face of prejudice and the nightmare prospect of death born of intimacy. His accent and pacing of the text are pitch-perfect, and he commendably resists the temptation to overstatement.
The production too is top-notch. Steven Dexter’s direction is tight and beautifully integrated with superlative lighting and sound designs from Aaron J Dootson and Dan Samson. It is a small, square, raised set with a tangle of lighting rigs around and below it. These punctuate and enliven the action with admirably atmospheric mood colours, from a cool blue for night-time adolescent coming of age, through to the razzle-dazzle of New York City, whether the life of the streets or drug-fuelled parties. Most impressive of all is the final ten minutes when an array of candles and points of light accompanies Bell in the long final lament for lost friends. This really needs an appropriate visual correlate to hold our full attention and it finds that here in a vision that you really do not want to see fade.
This is a five-star rendition and production housed in a rather dated three-star vehicle, and so deserves a four-star rating overall.