If gay men have sex, they will get AIDS and they will die! This is a pretty standard storytelling device. Rent made a song and dance out of it and Angels in America took hours out of your life to tell you this in a very roundabout way.
Positive by Sean Kitchener gives a very different, modern and much needed approach to the difficulties faced by young people diagnosed with HIV. The story focuses on two housemates: beautiful homosexual Benji (Timothy George) and equally beautiful heterosexual lady Nikki (Nathalie Barclay.)
Benji has struggled for a year with his HIV diagnoses and has turned himself into a hermit because of self imposed social stigma. Worries about how to tell people and a general feeling of being unclean aren’t helped by a one-night stand who spits all these fears in his face when Benji tries to use a condom.
Timothy George really is fantastic. His performance walks the fine line of a self pity party that makes you want to shake Benji whilst also conveying an intelligent ambitious young man trying to cope with mistake he made. By the end of the play you’re left rooting for him and hope that all ends well.
Nikki has the more interesting story of the two (by a very fine margin.) Fun and bubbly, in the least irritating way, Nikki has pretty much everything a 20-something could hope for. Her career is getting back on track and a supportive boyfriend make for a stark contrast to slut-shaming you might expect to see towards a young woman who enjoys sex. It’s fascinating to watch the self destructing, and understandable, pressure she puts on herself.
Special mention has to go to Sally George who plays Margo, mother of Benji. In the wrong hands Margo could have been a one note middle class stereotype. But a nuanced performance and strong writing means that once the fabulously insensitive remarks and an incredible pronunciation of ‘korma’ is out of the way you are left with a mother who is desperate not to be alienated from her son. It’s heartbreaking to watch a mother know she isn’t get it 100% right but keeps trying anyway. Beautifully done.
Playwright Shaun Kitchener and director James Ball make Positive entertaining and funny without making light of the issue. HIV is no longer a death sentence and not once does this play give the idea that Benji and Nikki are at deaths door. What it does underline is that HIV is serious and has ramifications on all parts of your life, not only physically but mentally.
Waterloo East Theatre, Brad Street, London, SE1 8TN
Image credit: Tom Crooke (Bobbin Productions)