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Angels in America - Millenium Approaches (Oxford Playhouse)

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
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Angels in America has long been a favourite play of mine. It is a sprawling, infuriating, captivating, challenging, flawed work of ambition, lyricism and anger. It needs a special group of people to come together to make it work – and in spite of the hype and plaudits that this student production has been getting, I cannot help but feel that all the praise has been somewhat over-generous.

The author, Tony Kushner, was very specific with his instructions to directors to keep the staging simple and obviously theatrical whilst retaining the magical effects that he demands. And I am sorry to say that it is in the stagecraft that this production really fails to live up to the script.

The design is clunky with some of the most laboured scene-changes that I have seen on the Playhouse stage. The stage crew are to be praised for doing their best to keep things moving but the design and direction conspired to make it nearly impossible for them. There are a number of elements which are not right for the period and other infelicities that jar rather than enhance the experience.

The arrival of the Angel at the end of the play is done with a certain panache – but the effect is let down by some poor sound and lighting choices. Having re-read the script, I can see that the team were trying to be true to the stage directions, but it failed to deliver the emotion climax that the play really needs.

One of the criticisms that can be laid at the play is that it is played out in a series of duologues – which can lead to some very static scenes. Unfortunately the blocking does little to overcome this challenge and as a result the considerable space of the Playhouse stage (extended on this occasion well into the auditorium) is sadly underused.

There are some positives to report. A good number of the cast members deliver strong performances. Arty Froushan is the emotional centre of the piece as the conflicted Louis Ironson and he has a credible relationship with the excellent Ed Barr-Sim (Prior). It would be too easy for all the attention to be focused on the more flamboyant role of Prior and it is to the credit of both actors that their performances are so well balanced. Natasha Heliotis also delivers a well-contrasted collection of cameo performances. Jack Sain, the director, clearly has the right touch when working with his actors to develop engaging interpretations.

I was also taken by his decision to allow characters to disappear by jumping backwards off the raised area of the stage. This is a simple device that fits perfectly with the author’s wishes.

I know that student drama is a chance for young performers, directors and technicians to learn their craft in a supportive environment. But I also know that it is only through honest, constructive critique that they will know which areas on which to focus for improvement.

This is a flawed production of a flawed (but still great) play. There are some very good moments and many areas which could have been improved. It is rightly ambitious and hopefully those involved will have benefited from the experience and can use this as a stepping stone to their next production.


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