There are no two ways about it, Angels In America is an epic piece of drama: seven hours of theatre, split into two parts (Millennium Approaches and Perestroika), examining America in the Reagan era, the effect of AIDS, the perception of homosexuality, religion and the politics of power. On a smaller scale it tells the story of two couples struggling to save their relationships. Matthew Amer cleared his diary to spend the day at the Lyric Hammersmith.
Tony Kushner's Angels In America is one of the most lauded pieces of writing of recent times, winning plaudits and awards on both sides of the Atlantic and for its television adaptation.
At the heart of the text are two AIDS sufferers: one, Roy Cohn, a powerful, thoroughly dislikeable lawyer who can pull strings to help his situation; the other, Prior Walter, a quick witted nobody deserted by his lover when the going gets tough. The deserting lover happens to hook up with Cohn's protégé Joe, whose wife is addicted to valium and spends most of the time in a world of her own creation. Who can blame her? Kushner's New York is not the most inviting of places.
The feeling in the home of the free is one of impending doom; HIV is seen as a plague, liberalism is being quashed and the impending millennium, with whatever it may bring, is looming. Then, of course, there are the strange happenings; visitations by ghosts, spiritual guides and a black PVC-clad avenging angel. As man has made free choices and progressed on earth, so heaven has fallen into ruin and God has left.
The ensemble cast of eight really earn their money, playing at least a couple of characters each. Greg Hicks gives a typically physical, word-spitting performance as the repulsive Cohn. Jo Stone-Fewings delivers a timid, confused, oppressed Joe, while Mark Emerson imbues Prior with a volatile mix of bitterness and hope. Veteran Ann Mitchell extends her impressive range, playing, among others, a Bolshevik, a rabbi, an executed spy and an angel, and Obi Abili oozes charm and amusement as drag queen turned nurse Belize.
Charles Balfour's lighting has the cast, at points, mere shadows on stage, while at others creates huge, otherworldly entrances. Soutra Gilmour's set is cleverly used to make the most out of minimal props and staging.
At the heart of the show, the simplicity is what makes it work. It seems an odd thing to say of a piece that includes angels, overlapping plots, a multitude of characters and some clever direction. But behind it all, Kushner's words have the audience caring about the characters and their world. While all might not be peachy in 1980s America, there is always hope. Of course, we now have a greater idea of how that world evolved.
Angels In America Parts I (Millennium Approaches) and II (Perestroika) play at the Lyric Hammersmith until 22 July.