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Elegies for Angels, Punks & Raging Queens
White Bear Theatre
19th February 2014

★★★☆☆

Giorgio Borghes, Rachel Kelly, Paul Hill, Natalie Amanda Gray, James Chisholm and Lorenzo Di Pietro

Photography © Eldredd Chester

No cheating, don't you fire up Google in another tab. If asked to name a musical about AIDS, I'm willing to bet the majority of you would give Rent as your first answer. And it's a good answer, but it's not the only piece of musical theatre with this disease at the core of its story, and in fact, Elegies for Angels, Punks & Raging Queens was written and staged a few years earlier.

When it comes to revivals, sometimes you wonder why the show never hit the big time in the first place. This can be down to a cruel twist of fate - maybe the timing of the first major run coincided with something quite exceptional - but sometimes it's because the show simply has stronger rivals.

The recent arena tour of Jesus Christ Superstar jettisoned a lot of its connective tissue, making it just song after song after song. Inspired by a patchwork quilt, Elegies touches on a raft of characters each with their own tale to tell, but still manages to incorporate a lot of free verse narrative, arguably a better creative decision. The problem is, unlike in Rent, there's no one main character for an audience to hook themselves upon.

Writer Bill Russell has crafted lots of individuals, all from completely different backgrounds, and whilst this is deliberate and he makes his point, human nature demands one clear protagonist. If there's no hero, it's difficult to forge an emotional connection with anyone - never mind a cast of changing faces. We do like these people and their stories deserve to be heard, but we just don't spend enough time with any of them.

To an extent, you can't blame producers Marc Kelly and Elizabeth Chadwick for the weaknesses in the source material - they didn't write it - and sometimes licensing issues can prevent too many tweaks. But with his director's hat on, Kelly is in the firing line for not giving enough stage time to his strongest performers.

The ensemble of 12 do a largely good job, but many misjudge a note here and there. The accompaniment from musical director Keiran Stallard and cellist Jo Keithley doesn't suffer from any such issues and the two musicians get the melodies spot on, but they don't imbue their playing with any depth of emotion. The score is well performed, but it fails to move.

Although Natalie Amanda Gray - like the other women - does make a few tiny slips, she is by far the best female vocalist, with an impressive range. She also manages to hold a tune whilst jumping up onto a stage and back down off it, her voice never wobbling, proving that she can indeed sing.

But it's largely the men who really shine in this production, with Giorgio Borghes, Paul Hill and Lorenzo Di Pietro the clear stars. Like Gray, they don't have enough time blasting out their numbers, but when they are given the opportunity, what unfolds in front of us is beautiful. The group harmonies - Celebrate, the reprise of Angels, Punks and Raging Queens and Learning to Let Go - are some of the better songs, as any individual flaws are swept up by the choir.

Don't get me wrong, despite the niggles, this is a perfectly decent show. It's not a West End production and it may be harsh to hold this up to professional standards, but you have to consider that the London fringe circuit does include pieces which are strong enough to compete with the big boys - see anything involving Emma Trow or Aaron Clingham.

Many members of the public were visibly appreciative of the performance and certainly believed they had received their money's worth. The production both opens and closes on a high point, washing away the sprinkling of wobbles throughout the piece - many of which will be ironed out over the course of the run. It also benefits from a bit of goodwill from profits from programme sales going to the fabulous Terrence Higgins Trust.

Kelly and Chadwick have to be commended for staging a show which isn't the obvious choice. And let's face it, Rent also suffers from some pretty big flaws. But here whilst the result is not entirely angelic, it is both worthwhile and worthy.

Elegies for Angels, Punks & Raging Queens opened on 18th February and runs until 2nd March 2014 at the White Bear Theatre.

Nearest tube station: Kennington (Northern)



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