It’s something of a bold thing to identify an attraction as the most eagerly awaited and potentially most popular of the entire summer. Yet, you’re probably on pretty safe ground assuming the just opened National Theatre’s production of the acclaimed Tony Kushner play Angels in America is that very attraction.
Written in the early 1990s and, originally making its West End debut at the same venue 25 years ago, this witty, arch and heavily symbolic epic piece of theatre (it’s in two parts) may feel somewhat out of place today, not least because of its magical realist style but also its US-set AIDS epidemic backdrop, yet the themes and ideas it showcases remain universal. Directed by Marianne Elliott (who’s achieved huge popularity and praise in recent times for the like of War Horse and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime), this revival features an impressive array of talented thesps including Anglo-American Hollywood stars Andrew Garfield and Nathan Lane, as well as the versatile familiar face of British TV that’s Russell Tovey.
Blessed with supreme production design and sets, it’s shot through with the sense that some awful, overpowering dread is just around the corner – informed by its subject matter in that regard, of course – which like it or not, feels entirely appropriate for today’s world. And, handled as well as it is by the director and cast, makes for supreme theatre (thus, a terrific night’s entertainment, especially if you’ve chosen the base for your London stay one of the nearby hotels in Paddington London). In many ways then, it’s a play that raises issues about the cracks in 1980s American society and, for the thoughtful then, provides genuine thinking material about the divisions and problems in our world of today, two or three decades on.
That said, it’s far from just intellectual stuff; the aforementioned magical realism feel is splendidly summoned up in this production, creating a concoction that brilliantly brings off a play that – when realised right – isn’t just superb but quite unlike anything else. With unexpected, unique alleyways down which many scenes go, it makes for a weirder, more surprising and richer theatrical experience than you’d otherwise expect, given the piece’s well known, sombre context. To say this is a dry examination of the HIV-affected gay community of ’80s America is very far from the mark, indeed.
And yet, perhaps why this production works so well and, yes, is pretty much unmissable is because its director Elliott pulls together the noted disparate elements so well to genuinely deliver a whole that’s more than the sum of its (already far from inconsiderable) parts. Several hours long and split into two halves, this is a long experience at the theatre, but at no point does it drag; the audience is thoroughly, masterfully guided through this most imaginative play with efficient and stylish aplomb. Indeed, so epic and unusual a theatrical night out is Angels in America that it’s rarely staged in major productions, so one of this calibre and scale is one not to be missed and one to treasure, indeed.
Note: tickets for all performances are currently sold out, but visit the National Theatre’s website for details of five ballots set to take place during the show’s run, which will be freeing up further tickets for purchase.
Venue: Lyttleton Theatre at the National Theatre, South Bank SE1 9PX
Dates: last performance Saturday 19th August 2017