Tell Me How It Ends at Liverpool Everyman – review

Gitika Buttoo’s production runs until 22 June

Emmy Stonelake and Luke Sookdeo in a scene from Tell Me How It Ends at Liverpool Everyman
Emmy Stonelake and Luke Sookdeo in Tell Me How It Ends, © Andrew AB Photography

Sometimes a new play can arrive slightly too late to stir the greatest impact. Even though its themes are no less relevant than ever, some of the charge of Tasha Dowd’s drama, set at the peak of the Aids crisis, has been dulled coming in the slipstream of Russell T Davies’s epochal TV series It’s A Sin and Larry Kramer’s recently revived play The Normal Heart. A new play then becomes more of an echo.

It shares similarities with both those pieces, but compressed down to a two-hander. Marc, a gay man, is in hospital with Aids, where he’s visited by Aster, a lesbian who volunteers to offer these men company since their friends and family have jettisoned them in fear of contracting it. It’s the late 1980s, when AZT was available on prescription, but before it was known how it was best used.

The tropes and trappings evoke both the period and the Aids dramas that have come before – from the big curly hair to the hospital bed. The yellow glow of Jack Coleman’s lighting conjures the common orangey, beige hue of the decor. There’s victims’ denial and refusal to take medication. And that vital motif of gay drama: a desire to live, and not just to exist.

Emmy Stonelake is the drama’s own IV line. Her gregariousness – even greeting us as she walks on to the stage – brilliantly suggests a woman whose heart seems to beat harder and stronger to compensate for these men’s being weaker. Swinging her bag over her shoulder at the end of each meeting becomes a regimented routine like a stoic army medic preparing for the next crisis. The way she addresses the audience in between begins to imply these are memories she replays. And after she talks about hosting a dying man in her flat, Marc’s later visit takes on an ominous significance.

Katie Scott’s set also reinforces her sacrifice in how she’s configured her life around these men. The three locations – the hospital, her home and Marc’s accommodation – sit on conjoined islands that she runs between, all having to share the same space as though she’s literally made room for them all. Posters of George Michael and Madonna are on one side, hospital signs on the other.

Stonelake is starkly contrasted, however, against Luke Sookdeo’s stilted performance. He never finds a natural rhythm to the character. Although dancing in the club by himself, addressing associates who are as invisible to us as he is to them. Dowd doesn’t fully explore the consequences of his abandonment, nor Aster’s rejection by her parents. Reconnecting with her family is dangled and left unresolved.

Instead, the play focuses on how these two people can come together and find comradery. But just as the division is introduced a little bluntly and quickly – one of Marc’s earliest lines is snapping “I don’t see your lot hooked up to machines” – they overcome it equally fast and decisively. Its freshest and sharpest commentary, on how the gay community needlessly wounded itself with rifts including envy towards lesbians who were believed to have escaped the fate, is much slighter than it could be.

Despite limiting its force, this compassionate play and production ensure, like Aster, that these people are well served.