REVIEW: Elegies For Angels, Punks and Raging Queens (Union Theatre) ★★★★★

Elegies For Angels, Punks and Raging Queens is a song cycle with music by Janet Hood and lyrics and book by Bill Russell. Featuring songs and monologues inspired by the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt and Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology, the piece was developed in San Francisco in 1985 and was originally titled The Quilt. In the shows original form, The Quilt debuted at the Ohio Theatre in Soho New York City in 1989 and then opened as Elegies For Angels, Punks and Raging Queens in Manhatten’s East Village in 1990. The first UK production opened in 1992 at the Kings Head Theatre in London where it played for several months before transferring to the Criterion Theatre in London’s West End in 1993. Since then, the show has seen a handful of revivals including productions in Australia, Germany and Israel. A new London production opens at the Union Theatre in support of the MAD Trust and London audiences have the opportunity to see this beautiful, heart breaking song cycle once more.

Elegies For Angels, Punks and Raging Queens was conceived to commemorate the lives lost in the AIDS pandemic. Each of the monologues is written from the perspective of some 30 characters who contracted AIDS from a variety of sources, such as a “regular Joe who dropped into a brothel, to a granny who was given an infected blood transfusion”. Hood’s beautiful blues, jazz and rock score and Bill Russell’s heart-breaking words give us an honest glimpse into the sadness and horror that unfurled during the 1980s and importantly the fight and community support that grew from it. Filled with love, laughter and longing, Elegies is a celebration of hope, love and life.

Bryan Hodgson directs a fresh young ensemble in this production featuring Fraser Leigh Green, Michiel Janssens, Marcus Ayton, Calum Gulvin, Aidan Harkins, Chris Cahill, Althea Burey, Jackie Pulford, Jade Marvin, Charlie McCullagh, Ailsa Davidson, Jade Chaston, Rhys Taylor, Paige Fenlon, Kristine Kruse and Matthew Grove telling over 30 stories. The music is interwoven into the stories with a heart breaking reverence that is a credit to Hodgson’s direction. Reminiscent of the Memorial Quilt that inspired the show, a piece of illustrated quilt is laid in front of the actor as they speak which is a poignant reminder of how real each story and character is. As an ensemble, every actor is perfectly cast and as an audience you get a real sense of pride radiating from the cast as they perform. From the opening title song, to the life affirming Learning To Let Go at the end of the show every song is expertly sung. While the actors do not wear microphones, Henry Brennan’s musical direction blends nicely and his small band and the sound effects featured throughout never overpower the cast.

Elegies For Angels, Punks and Raging Queens is a very cleverly written song cycle with each song loosely representing the stages of grief. In his director’s note, Bryan Hodgson makes this connection and this production moves along beautifully as a result. Not wallowing, Hodgson’s expert storytelling allows the audience to laugh, cry and celebrate along with the actors onstage really pulling the audience into each story. This is very effectively illustrated towards the end of the show when the house lights come up and the audience is reminded that the lines between the living and departed, the actors and the audience are artificial and that the need to fight with togetherness and hope, living each day to the fullest is at the core of love.

Elegies for Angels, Punks and Raging Queens is a beautiful song cycle of personal stories and free verse. Told with love, honesty and humour, this Union Theatre production is an exceptionally strong and poignant tribute to those we lost to the AIDS epidemic and those who’ve been left behind.

Reviewed by Stuart James
Photo: Mark Senior PR


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