They promised a rollercoaster of emotions with their latest show, and it still remains the best catch-all description of What We Did Next’s sensational production of Elegies for Angels, Punks and Raging Queens.
Written by Bill Russell in 1989, it is a large ensemble piece in which each of the 36 characters tells their story of how they died of AIDS. It might not sound like your ideal weekend viewing, but for those not familiar with the show it turns out to be a surprisingly uplifting and extremely powerful piece of theatre.
With each character dressed in only black and red and a set comprising a few white props that doubled up as everything from deckchairs to sick beds, there was a nice eye for colour and design at work in the cosy space of the Iosis studio. An orchestra of just keyboard, harp and cello also kept things simple.
Director Mark Rawle set himself a complicated task in the decision to keep each cast member on stage for the duration once they had performed their monologue, but despite a bit of overcrowding near the end it paid off well and really helped the audience to connect with the performers in a rather unique kind of way.
Each character had a couple of minutes to share their story, and some fine writing from Russell conveyed everything from young country boys arriving on the big city gay scene to grannies infected through blood transfusions. All human life really was there, skilfully conveyed by the largely non-professional cast.
Just as a small example, there were laughs (Matthew Pieterse’s raging queen Joe, devastated from beyond the grave that friends had not made his patch on the NAMES Project memorial quilt FABULOUS as requested); tragedies (Fiona Darling’s hard as nails Sally, used and abused by men all her life and ending up addicted and infected), fun (Shaun ‘Lady Shaun’ McKenna as drag queen Roscoe); and dreadful poignancy (young Charlotte Dowson as Katherine, a child born with AIDS).
If everyone got to sing a song as part of their appearance we’d have been there all night; not only were there not as many numbers as a conventional musical, but the songs were not so memorable, on a first listen at least (save perhaps the chorus of the title song itself).
However, that is not to say the performances were not special as an audience can expect from WWDN – they do know their musical theatre, after all. Highlights included Esther Cole’s stunning I Don’t Know How to Help You, a song from a devoted PA nursing her dying boss, and the big finale led by Anthony Proctor, Learning to Let Go.
At this point, having 36 people crammed into the small performance space paid off handsomely to create an unforgettably moving closing scene, in which all elements of the show finally combined. As each performer joined in with the number they threw a handful of red confetti towards the audience, keeping completely in character whether it was done with a camp flourish or a dismissive toss.
In lieu of individual curtain calls (which although thoroughly deserved, again, we’d have been there until dawn clapping until our hands fell off), it was a beautiful touch that nicely recapped the colourful journey we’d been on and the stories we’d heard, and ended the show on an emotional, bittersweet high.