views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

Waterloo East Theatre
22nd May 2014


Ryan J Brown and Timothy George as Olly and Benji

Photography provided by West Avenue

There are many worthy shows which explore lots of important issues. Take Eve Hensler's world-famous The Vagina Monologues, a play about feminism. It's so worthy it hurts. Or even Elegies for Angels, Punks and Raging Queens, a musical about AIDS and how it can impact on absolutely everyone. Again, worthy. When did "worthy" become another way of saying "something you should definitely see, but probably don't want to"?

Well, if that's what the adjective now means, Positive is certainly not worthy. It entertains, it moves and yes, it does educate, but sneakily so. At no point do you feel playwright Shaun Kitchener is trying to bash you over the head with a bunch of dry informative leaflets - those are in fact mocked during the play itself - rather he explores the impact on HIV not only on the person diagnosed with it, but on friends, family and potential lovers. This isn't about merely surviving with HIV, it's about living with it, about getting on with life, because if Britney Spears managed to pick herself up after her much publicised meltdown in 2007, anyone else can do so too.

A year after receiving his diagnosis, Britney-obsessed Benji (Timothy George) is still struggling to cope. After some cajoling from best friend and flatmate Nikki (Nathalie Barclay) and her boyfriend Greg (Paul Heelis), he reluctantly agrees to go on a blind date with Greg's single friend Matt (Kitchener). The story follows Benji's attempt to find some kind of companionship after rejecting human contact for so long, and is full of flashbacks, providing background to how Benji reached this point.

Some of the narrative is admittedly a bit clunky, particularly in the beginning, and not all of the characters are fully fleshed out. However, Kitchener strikes a decent balance between comedy and drama, with director James Callas Ball keeping the pacing fairly even to match. Positive has a running time of two hours plus an interval, but the momentum is kept going right until the end. Ball frequently uses lighting to divide up the set and to establish shifts in the non-linear narrative. Actual set changes are kept to a bare minimum, which is welcome given the size of the stage.

Shaun Kitchener and Timothy George as Matt and Olly

Photography provided by West Avenue

When it comes to HIV and AIDS, many writers feel an obligation to spread a message. See anything by Harvey Fierstein. It's a burden which Kitchener has clearly also felt weighing upon him, but he's thankfully succeeded at making Positive subtly educational rather than full-blown preachy. Olly (Ryan J Brown) may be used as a two-dimensional figure of fun for the most part, an exaggerated, over-the-top, camp student living only ever in the moment, but his wake up call is a reminder that without being tested, you never really know. Some hard questions are asked, including where to draw the line between managing privacy and when it's only right to share a diagnosis.

Many of the characters in Positive don't react quite as they should, with failings on all sides, and by rarely letting one person take the moral high ground, the script for all its light-heartedness does feel quite natural and raw in places. Margo (Sally George) like Olly is initially used to set up a few jokes, but when she talks about her struggle to understand what has happened to her son, she comes across as more human. Reconciling fact with fear is no easy task, and whilst we feel she should be the mother who Benji wants her to be, we can sympathise with her as to why it's so hard to step up in that way. There's nothing malicious in her actions, but that makes it all the more heart-wrenching.

Jennifer (Jamie-Rose Monk) also brings plenty of laughs, but she strikes us as the sort of healthcare professional who does use humour to diffuse a tense situation. The comedy therefore makes her feel more genuine. Monk delivers plenty of killer throw-away lines with perfect timing. The cast are all relatively strong, but the women in this play stand out, along with Kitchener himself, whose character Matt comes across as the most likeable.

This is a bold piece of writing which manages to achieve a lot in only 120 minutes. Rather than attempt to slap a label like "worthy" onto this play, I'm instead going to simply say that Positive is a play which you should go see, because it will entertain you. There are many reasons to see a show, but sometimes, that's the only one which matters.

Positive ran from 13th May to 1st June 2014 at Waterloo East Theatre.

Nearest tube station: Waterloo (Bakerloo, Northern, Jubilee)

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