Review: ‘Angels in America: Millennium Approaches’

Henry Coleman 14 February 2019

★★★★

Angels in America: Millennium Approaches is a complex, dense, and very long play, so the highest compliment you can give to any production is that it kept the audience’s attention right to the end. That’s certainly an accolade which the ADC’s version, directed by Alistair Henfrey, deserves, maintaining energy and building momentum until the close.

This is helped by the choice to emphasise the comic aspects of this show, which manages to draw surprisingly big laughs for a drama about the AIDS crisis. It proves to be an astute decision which gives the whole thing a feel of a carnival or an increasingly frenzied dance of death – an appropriate atmosphere for a play saturated with apocalyptic and millenarian themes from the title down. One of the richest veins of humour running through the show is a sly awareness that these characters are never quite as clever as they think they are, for all their pompous declarations. The ramblings are compelling testimonies to characters groping their way towards truth and answers where there simply aren’t any.

Bilal Hasna’s Louis is a highlight here, delivering speeches about a ‘neo-Hegelian positivist sense’ with an intoxicating speed and intensity which laid bare the inner turmoil of the character. That is more broadly a great triumph of these performances; all the characters are suffering immensely, but they are never allowed to become too perfect or disappear into pity. The standout here and throughout the performance is Billie Collins’ Harper, a Valium-addicted housewife with an abusive father and a closeted husband. Her Harper naturally has a profound melancholy, but she’s never defined by it. Instead, she’s fragile, defensive, and petulant, emotionally unravelling through the play. Collins gives her a frantic energy which is extremely powerful and infects the whole play with a sense of catastrophe which pays off beautifully at the end. This is also set up by the incredibly disturbing recorded voice which ends up defining the second half with its sheer creepiness.

However, it’s around this point that I found my only real issue with the production; the fantastical and surreal aspects don’t feel quite as thought-through as the scenes of domestic drama, and sometimes don’t especially cohere with the rest of it. The burial ceremony which opens the play is extremely powerful, but from then on the mystical elements you’d expect from a play constantly referring to angels and ghosts are a little underdeveloped. This isn’t helped by the lighting design, of bright white strip lights on for almost the entire show. This is effective at first but it soon becomes quite visually wearing, and it dulls the impact of one of the most extraordinary scenes in the whole performance – the moment Roy Cohn simply refuses a diagnosis of AIDS. Here, the blinding white lights are an excellent choice, providing a glamorous stage for a man who has built his career on showmanship. Joe Tyler Todd conveys this superbly, making Cohn a horrifyingly magnetic figure and giving a deep sense of the character simply by the way he ties his tie. Somehow the long-dead Cohn is now once again a relevant figure in contemporary politics, as the mentor to a young Donald Trump. But to its immense credit this production never tries to shoehorn in contemporary politics. It is quietly comfortable in the timelessness of a play constantly circling around the vast unknowability of life and death itself – and it pays off hugely in a captivating show.