Play review: Moment of Grace

Henry Tolley
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Staging a theatre production over the past few months has been an impossible feat for many. Ticket holders have been left yearning for drama that social distancing didn’t allow and the performing arts industry has taken a hit because of it.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. Ben Gosling, the writer and executive producer of new play, Moment of Grace, was not to be beaten by the new restrictions. In an effort to reach audiences, he worked with Backstory Ensemble and the Actors Centre to bring the production to people’s screens.

The play was originally slated to run at The Actors Centre’s flagship venue, Tristan Bates Theatre, but during the Covid-19 lockdown, Moment of Grace was reimagined with actors self-shooting at home (adhering to social distancing guidelines), to create a film-theatre hybrid.

Created as a three-character play, Moment of Grace looks at the famous visit of Diana, Princess of Wales to London’s first AIDS Unit in 1987, where she shook a patient’s hand without wearing gloves and in doing so triggered a momentous shift in public and media perceptions of people living with HIV & AIDS.

It’s a production that deals with themes that are both poignant and culturally sensitive to the LGBTQ+ community, and so translating a sense of emotional awareness and sensitivity is key. This is achieved through monologues that are balanced with banality and stark emotion, to both make the characters believable and give them emotional depth.

Giving their performances from plain white backdrops, the onus is very much on the actors to create the atmosphere of the play. An atmosphere is certainly created, with all three actors providing engaging performances that carry the script as it builds up to a cathartic crescendo. 

Lucy Walker-Evan’s performance is especially gripping, with her large, emotive doe eyes offering us windows into the kind soul of her character, Jude. This is an impressive transition from stage to screen acting for Walker-Evans, as she herself said, “We had to create the world around the character so you believe they are looking at Princess Diana, when in reality we’re staring at our fridge!”

That being said, unfortunately, the framing does leave the play to look somewhat like three audition tape reels spliced together. Producer, Paul Coleman, says of the framing, “[a monologue play] is less easy to translate on film – especially if the actors are in a space that is literally a white wall without props or scenery. The question was how to create drama and atmosphere in this space and to engage an audience emotionally.”

Use of music and live-action inserts help to meld the monologues together into a cohesive narrative, although one cannot help but feel that live performances on the stage would have served the play better. Although filming picks up nuances in facial expressions, the tension created in theatre space would have amplified the acting in an inimitable fashion. This is a critique of the form, rather than Moment of Grace itself, however. 

Rich in testimonial memory, the play itself serves as a powerful ode to those who lived through the HIV/AIDS crisis of the 1980s. This is it’s greatest strength and what I would argue is the greatest reason to watch Moment of Grace.

Luke Dayhill’s performance as a sanguine yet troubled AIDS patient, Andrew, does a sterling job at breathing life into the real life testimonies that have noticeably informed Gosling’s writing. The talk of spreading an infectious disease echoes even more poignantly given the current pandemic, an albeit tenuous comparable experience that can be seen as a gateway for younger generations to educate themselves about the AIDS crisis.

Moment of Grace was produced in association with The National HIV Story Trust and the play is all the more authentic for it. Gosling says of this partnership, “The oral history testimonies collected by the National HIV Story Trust is a remarkable collection of sometimes harrowing, sometimes inspiring stories. These, in addition to my own interviews with people who had met Diana or had themselves been impacted by the AIDS pandemic or worked in healthcare at the time, we had a collection of powerful and often very distressing stories to draw on.”

These stories are lesser-heard and productions such as Moment of Grace shed light on issues that should be heard by both the LGBTQ+ community and the rest of the world alike.

Find out how you can stream Moment of Grace for yourself here.

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