“You have HIV, you’re not radioactive”
William M Hoffman’s As Is has the distinction of being the first play to be written about the Aids epidemic but what is more impressive about this production, which comes 30 years after its 1985 New York debut, is that it doesn’t feel a dated period piece. Director Andrew Keates respectfully looks to the past – a memorial wall is provided for audience members to pay tribute to those that have been lost – but firmly anchors us in the present with a wide range of post-show activity exploring the sexual health issues that are still a major part of our world today.
It also helps that Hoffman’s play is really rather well constructed. It may be set in the middle of a New York gay scene slowly coming to terms with its decimation but at its heart, it is a poignant love story. Self-satisfied and sexually voracious, Rich swaggers through the world but as he contracts the disease that is afflicting so many of those around him, his relationships with friends, family and society in general are forcefully redefined. Clinging to devoted ex Saul, it’s a deeply affecting personal odyssey but a defiantly proud one too.
Steven Webb’s Rich is a marvellously nuanced performance that engages you from his vain beginnings through the painful realisations of what is important in life and the slow comprehension that sometimes it is just too late, even with the support of David Poynor’s too-faithful Saul. Brilliant work from Dino Fetscher as his jock brother makes later scenes emotionally destructive but Hoffman laces dark humour to help us through, the intervening hospital attendant an inspired little touch to make sure you’ll laugh through the tears.
At not much over an hour, Keates keeps things sprightly with the pacing and is served well by an ensemble cast covering many supporting roles with extreme vividness. Jane Lowe’s hospice worker is a stand-out and Russell Morton and Bevan Celestine cycle through a host of comic figures and callous representations of contemporary attitudes. Recommended.