2016 marks the twentieth anniversary since ARV, the life-saving HIV medication, was introduced to the UK. Few people know its name and fewer still the lease of life it gave many, mainly gay men, living with the disease. Two decades later and how much has changed? The astute and adroit interconnectedness of The HIV Monologues tells us quite simply: not much.
Love and fear are still the overriding forces in the world, and stigma has never stopped rearing its ugly head. There are still those who sneer “they bring it on themselves” and dates who rip their hand from yours the second they hear. Shame cannot be washed away and neither can the pain.
Alex is waiting for a date. He’s young, sparky, a self-referential millennial with a love of all that is token. He starts falling for Nick but quickly gets stuck. In a window. Trying to escape. Nick disclosed his HIV status and Alex, equal parts childish, cute and callous, couldn’t quite deal with it.
The next day, wracked with guilt, he attends an audition in a hospital (a little farfetched but Spotlight throws up worse) where he pretends to ailing author Barney to have an affinity to the self- same disease that last night he ran from. Irene, an Irish nurse, is also running. From her past, from her country, from a society that doesn’t understand her. Maybe that’s why she shows compassion, after initial shock, towards young and dying dancer Eric. He is sweet, kind and wickedly funny. He doesn’t deserve the media furore that surrounds his hospital room so Irene decides to put them to shame.
Nick, too, is surrounded by shame but this is his own. He has it all: a mortgage, a degree, recently diagnosed HIV. He teeters between throwing it all away and bouncing back from the abyss, choosing the latter thanks to a Frenchman named Pierre and a particularly thorough bathroom clean.
Barney is the final piece of the puzzle and we join him on the cathartic journey of learning to mourn. In a touching if twee moment Barney helps to deliver friend Generosity’s baby in the same graveyard his boyfriend Eric is buried.
In the present, Alex has been cast as Eric in a play of Barney’s that Nick serendipitously attends. The two make up, make-out and move it upstairs however Barney unwittingly disrupts their post-coital post-show high with a revelation about Alex. Nick flees but – by way of a recycled monologue from the play he’s just performed – Alex wins back Nick’s affection. The two, we feel – perhaps a modern day Eric and Barney – will be alright.
The play is well written, tender and florid, and cleverly constructed. The playing with and passing of time serves as a strong reminder that our past was someone’s today and that without looking back we can’t seek to move forwards. It shakes away our complacency and shows, rather than tells, that we – the community and the country – are neither compassionate nor active enough.
The stories are poignant and each character in their own way charming. Nick is a hugely well-observed character: one of those late-twenties professionals, bouncing pillar to post in a half-life of takeaways, dirty sheets and mephedrone. However, like Alex and Nick’s rollercoaster romance, the play’s writing has its ups and downs. Beautiful phrasing sometimes trips over itself and characters all seem to benefit from the same broad and brilliant vocabulary, expounding on the world in the same manner.
Cash’s otherwise utterly convincing Nick is undercut by talk of ‘revelry’, a word that sits like a bitter pill in the mouth of the talented Sean Hart. Whilst each monologue has a spark of brilliance – Alex’s self-obsessed running commentary, the kindness of Irene’s defibrillator-bashed, basil-based mojito – Nick’s is the most realistically conceived and graciously lacks the cinematic Curtisesque comedy or sentimentality that seeps into the others.
Cash writes largely in monologue and predominantly on LGBT issues. His dedication to the cause is admirable and his work striking, however this particular script paints in broad brushstrokes – Alex somehow knows to bring lube to his big performance, there’s a sexual health doctor called Dr. Eros – in a somewhat proseltyzing tone to a choir already convinced.
Luke Davies’s direction is unobtrusive and fluid, each body taking up and moving across the stage freely. In moments where two are present, the actors live in tandem, brief and tender exchanges. Some declamatory ‘he said’s and ‘stepping towards me’s hold our hands a little too tightly, but the overall flow of the evening is comfortable and competent.
Obviously much of the piece rests on the talent of the actors and on this front it largely succeeds. Sean Hart understatedly eschews any cookie cutter image of someone diagnosed with HIV, his relaxed and off-the-cuff Nick shifting between multi-roling and displays of real emotion in a deft, satisfying and standout performance.
Denholm Spurr comes alive when given the chance to interact and grapples well with the least likeable character (Alex) however his lively energy doesn’t always carry over into conviction. Charly Flyte displays a wonderful emotional range as Irish nurse Irene, the only character to truly rail against the disease’s stigma, bringing an honesty to the performance that fast forgives her wonky accent.
The veteran activist and actor Joanthan Blake’s semi-autobiograhpical monologue exploring suicide, shame and insufferable sadness is measured and gently delivered. The HIV Monologues are a slightly clunky but enjoyable call-to-arms. Cash peppers well-worn stories of nurses and patients, sex and drugs, with fastidious and uncompromising detail, cradled by actors deeply invested in their characters.
Conversations around HIV are still largely silent or unheard. To showcase them onstage, to humanize and to highlight, can only be applauded.