When William M. Hoffman's play 'As Is' was first performed in New York 30 years ago, it was hailed by critics as being the most powerful play of the year, and the first of it's kind. Using humour and sensitivity it talks about AIDS in the 1980s, shattering preconceptions with one fell swoop. Thirty years later it arrives at London's Trafalgar Studios, and is equally as powerful in this beautiful piece of theatre that hits every mark.
Walking into the theatre, you are greeted by a line of seated figures in what appears to be a waiting room. As you wait for the play to start, they wait with you, however their minds look to be wandering into deeper territory. The sound of news reports and interviews fill the room, adding tension to the proceedings. As the noise stops, a figure walks into the room and turns on the strip lighting, each bulb illuminating with an obtrusive flicker.
The story starts in New York City 1985 where we meet Rich (Steven Webb) breaking up with his longtime lover, Saul (David Poynor). It begins as the two successful Manhattanites argue over the division of belongings, but soon turns cold as Rich reveals he has contracted the terrifying new disease - AIDS. At this moment the stage floods with characters from Rich's life, creating an array of interweaved scenes showing reactions from his family, friends and doctors. The strong cast of eight give a snippet into their lives to show their empathic, cold and sometimes scared reactions to the diagnosis.
The actors on stage are strong and the team behind the production are equally so. The direction, lighting and sound all perfectly come together throughout the show to create magical moments of theatre. You feel as though you are transported to the new york apartments, the clubs, and eventually the hospitals. In one scene we are taken into the 1980s club-scene, where Rich gets increasingly inebriated, and the combination of elements take you along the drunken journey with him. The Trafalgar Studio theatre is wonderfully intimate and Andrew Keates' direction utilities the space to it's full potential. He achieves key moments throughout the story, whether big or small, and it flows with quick pace and increasing interest. The overall fabric of this play feels very genuine, as though we are seeing real snapshot into the characters lives.
Steven Webb and David Poynor deliver incredible performances, with Webb creating a defiant buoyancy and Poynor an unwavering warmth. Both characters are authentic and their journey takes them through a wide range of emotions. They manage to very quickly morph into scenes as the story develops around them. In fact, the whole cast have their work cut out for them, being on-stage for a majority of the play. Natalie Burt gives a great character in Lily, full of life and excitement, then creating a very different persona as an attendee of People With AIDS group. I found the latter scene to be one of the most touching in the play, with people faced with the same diagnosis, yet dealing with it in very different ways. Dino Fetscher shows his range from being full of fear as Rich's brother, then calling up the laughs later in the show at the AIDS hotline office. Russell Morton also brings hilarious highlights in almost any of his multiple roles, whether on the hotline, in the club or injecting humour into his hospital worker character.
'As Is' is strong in every sense of the word; in terms of writing, direction and performance. It's a very important moment in time, which is told with a humour and honesty that makes it hard to ignore. The play is a well-rounded piece of theatre that speaks volumes of the time and is still very relevant today. A non-stop 80 minute journey that kept me engrossed for every second. Funny, touching, intelligent and certainly worth booking a ticket for.
As Is runs until 1st August 2015, Trafalgar Studios (Studio 2).