"I'm not the sort of person to get AIDS"
Following on the success of The Chemsex Monologues, Dragonflies Theatre now turn to the world of HIV in gay men with The HIV Monologues: From AIDS to PrEP: Love, Sex & HIV. Intertwining the stories of four people, Patrick Cash's writing draws the line from the 1980s to the modern day, from those diagnosed with the disease to those who love and care for them, from the condition as a death sentence to the comparative liberation that PrEP now brings.
So we meet the blithely unaware Alex who tries to escape through the bathroom when a hot date reveals his status, Irish nurse Irene who tackles the stigma of working with AIDS patients in the 1980s with a near-unimaginable compassion, Nick who is a recently diagnosed HIV positive man struggling to come to terms with what that means and Barney, whose life is reinvigorated by the arrival of ARV medication in the 1990s.
And as they tell their stories, of the love and hope in their worlds as well as the fear and frustration, connections make themselves clear. These are narrative - Alex is Nick's date, Irene is caring for Barney's lover, Nick auditions to be in a play written by Barney etc etc. But they're also achingly thematic - the intolerance faced by those shattering conservative societal norms, the challenges people face in finding reliable information, the unexpected ways in which grief hits us.
It would be hard to do otherwise but director Luke Davies ensures the emotional intensity of The HIV Monologues hits with pinpoint accuracy through an excellent cast. Denholm Spurr's puppyish Alex matures before our very eyes, even as his cock and his conscience do battle; Charly Flyte is extraordinary as Irene, the 80s stigma she counteracts still as difficult to listen to as ever; and Sean Hart's quiet self-loathing as Nick is desperately, affectingly, sad.
And in something of a coup, Jonathan Blake (one of the first people to have been diagnosed with AIDS in the UK and whose story inspired the film Pride) marks a return to the stage after 30-odd years with a highly moving performance as Barney, which will render you incapable of ever looking at an orchid the same way again.
Cash's determination to tell a love story means that the final sequence eschews the monologue format, in some ways at least, which shifts the dynamic of the evening. And you can't help but feel that the still-evolving issues around PrEP deserve a more thorough interrogation. But the heartfelt nature of the romance, plus its undoubted heat, leads you towards a forgiving frame of mind and the hope that it provides feels vitally important too. Recommended.
Running time: 70 minutes (without interval)
Booking until 28th October (A flood at the Ace Hotel meant that this performance was relocated to the nearby Juju's Bar and Stage at the last minute - might be best to check when booking whether they've been able to go back)