Adam Wollerton reviews Elegies for Angels, Punks and Raging Queens, in its final week at The White Bear Theatre.
Elegies for Angels, Punks and Raging Queens – The White Bear Theatre – Kennington, London
When I heard about Elegies I was not sure quite what to expect. The idea of a song cycle production as opposed to a musical definitely intrigued me, and the nature of the show grabbed my attention even more. With two new producers at the helm, and being an avid fan of new theatre groups and companies, I had to show my support.
The show was based on the Names AIDS Memorial Quilt Project and was told from two points of view – one of those who had been affected by AIDS, and the other of those who have watched someone close to them suffer or die from AIDS. The quintessential statement that this show made is that AIDS does not just affect gay people, a necessary statement to make as thoughts of the “gay disease” linger on.
However, I say suffer, but one thing the show does say is that people don’t die from AIDS, they live with it. The nature of the show is exactly that, a celebration of life. A night effervescent with emotion, the production is well designed to fit the White Bear Theatre, Kennington. The intimate space compliments the storytelling sequence from character after character as they move from each corner of the room across a free-standing rostrum. The flow of the show is strong with each actor attempting to grab the audience’s attention as they tell their story.
As a company, they were successful, and on most occasions the actor managed to create a convincingly strong persona quickly during their monologues. However, with over thirty monologues in the piece, some actors fell a little short when it came to creating a distinct difference between their characters. This did not pull away from the production however, and there is a lot that this show needs to be commended for. The show was opened beautifully by the angelic voice of Karen Moses accompanied by Musical Director Kieran Stallard on the keyboard with the opening number ‘Angels, Punks and Raging Queens’ setting a high vocal bar for the rest of the performance.
The cast made the feat of performing with no microphones look seemingly easy, conveying their intended emotion through monologue or song convincingly and really capturing the audience’s gaze. I threw interspersed glances around the room throughout but met no eyes as every time they seemed transfixed on the performance before them. The next musical number to fill the venue almost blew open the doors, a beautifully melodic and incredibly well harmonised rendition of ‘Holding On To You’ which sent goosebumps running all over which I can only imagine was shared by the rest of the room. Credit to Lorenzo Di Pietro, Rachel Kelly, Giorgio Borghes, and Elizabeth Chadwick for their performance of this tune – by far, a favourite of the evening.
Another emotional number to add to Act One was led by the warming vocalisations, and incredible display of range of Paul Hill. Through song, this man’s performance was exceptional and I could not help but stare in awe during ‘And The Rain Keeps Falling Down’. I do believe that some focus on character development during the monologues would really strengthen his performance but it cannot be taken away from Mr Hill that he is a man to watch in theatre today.
Don’t be thinking that Elegies… is just a sob story song cycle. No. Welcome to the stage Punks James Chisholm and Ben Rawlings. A great little tap number called ‘I Don’t Do That…Anymore’ had the audience tapping away. Though Rawlings’ voice is a little younger sounding than that of his cast members, it did fit smoothly with the soulful tune of Mr Chisholm’s lead on this song. Credit to both for great monologue performances too. Ben Rawlings established himself incredibly well by bringing unique distinctions between his characters into play and James Chisholm wonderfully wove comedy into a subject that is so sensitive.
In terms of comedy, the cast were not afraid to take on the challenging roles that would often gain the ‘Oh that is just not right’ glare from an audience member. Rachel Kelly took the role of the drug fuelled doter who slept with as many men as possible and spreading her disease to a gripping level. She moved across the stage from one audience member to the next, establishing strong eye contact and making you listen, effortlessly grabbing the attention of each individual in the room.
Alongside her, the most obvious to draw attention was the Raging Queen herself – the drag queen persona of Giorgia Borghes who, at first, I was worried would add an element of tacky to the proceedings, but indeed did the opposite. He portrayed the drag queen as a playful character and his physicality was admirable at all times. Now, some may say it is easy to play camp, and it can be, but when Giorgio Borghes reappeared at the start of Act Two, I actually wondered if this was a new member of the cast. Suddenly, a man had replaced the camp queen demonstrating that Mr Borghes wasn’t simply acting, but embodying his character and commitment to each of his roles. Again, a cast member with a terrific voice. In addition, it has to be said that Rob Walsh’s portrayal of his more feminine roles had the audience in giggles bringing some much welcomed light into the production.
And to the closer of Act One. After an act that made you feel like you had sat through a deep meaningful conversation with your best friend, it was time for an uplifting finish that really captured the nature of the show – people don’t die with AIDS, they live with it.
After a riff-tastic eruption from Miss Natalie Amanda Gray, and an incredibly sustained and powerful high E note from Miss Rachel Kelly, this song promised to end Act One with a bang. The two leading ladies in this song certainly showed how to vocally riff out with class and displayed well tuned voices that were cohesive with the melodies keyed out by MD Kieran Stallard. The audience went into the interval excited and anticipating Act Two. The second act certainly moved on a lot swifter that Act One with fewer monologues and more frequent songs. I did perhaps wonder if a little playing around with the construction of the production could give the whole show an added flow as Act One seemed heavily laden with monologues when compared to Act Two. That being said, the cast did handle the material incredibly well.
Two songs to highlight from Act Two are ‘My Brother Lived In San Francisco’ performed effortlessly by Co-Producer/Actor Elizabeth Chadwick and the closing number ‘Learning To Let Go’ which certainly had the spotlight shining on Lorenzo Di Pietro. His voice was smooth, comforting, and was perfectly fitting for this number. It echoed the themes of Act One song ‘I Don’t Know How To Help You’ which was gifted to the audience through the delicate and entrancing voice of Marcia Brown. This production is an incredible achievement for Marc Kelly and Elizabeth Chadwick and they should be immensely proud.
The cast are fantastic – probably the strongest in a while I have seen that have shared a stage together – and the show has been situated well in The White Bear Theatre. A quick congratulations to MD Kieran Stallad on delivering perfect vocal executions through the cast and on your performance also on the night along with cellist Jo Keithley.
If you have a spare evening this week, or even if you don’t, you should make time to go see this great production of Elegies for Angels, Punks, and Raging Queens.