Review: 25th Anniversary Revival of Tony Kushner's ANGELS IN AMERICA at the National Theatre, Lyttelton

Tony Kushner's Pulitzer Prize, Tony, Emmy and Olivier Award-winning tale Angels In America is perhaps the most iconic play in recent years and is certainly one of my personal favourites, so when word of this star-studded revival at the National was announced - directed by none other than Curious Incident alum Marianne Elliott - to say I was excited would be an incredible understatement.

Having only read the play before and never having seen it on the stage or the screen, my biggest excitement going into the Lyttelton that afternoon was getting to see the story in front of me for the first time and through the genius eyes of Elliott. Her vision for the story is huge, a big contrast to the original run of the plays which was in the National's smallest venue the Dorfman (then the Cottelsoe) back in the 90s, and it plays beautifully.

For those who don't know, Angels In America is actually a two-part saga with part one running at around 3.5 hours and part two at around 4 hours. Part 1: Millenium Approaches sets the story up for us: we are introduced to Prior Walter (Andrew Garfield), a gay man living in New York with his boyfriend Louis Ironson (James McArdle). We quickly discover that Walter is suffering from AIDs and from there-on-in, they must find a way to keep their relationship stable while also keeping Prior alive. We are then introduced to Joseph Pitt (Russell Tovey) and Harper Pitt (Denise Gough), the former is a man struggling with his sexuality and the latter stuggling with a mild valium addiction. Harper hallucinates regularly - as does Prior - and she meets many different characters who help to colour the landscape of America at this time, with a lot of these characters being played by Nathan Stewart-Jarrett. In addition to the Pitt pair, we also meet Joseph's strictly Jewish mother Hannah (Susan Brown) and Joseph's boss Roy Cohn (Nathan Lane), who has a lot of struggles of his own. The characters' lives and circumstances, as well as the dialogue and pictures painted by the people around them and their experiences, help to paint the backdrop of America at the time of the AIDs epidemic in a bold, bizarre and vivacious way of beauty.

Russel Tovey as Joseph Pitt in Angels in America: Part 1, Millenium Approaches

Out of the two of them, I definitely enjoy Part 1 more both on page and on stage. In comparison to the second half, the writing feels so much tighter and precise in regards to its intentions and it's one of those plays that, despite its length, feels like it's only lasted for about five minutes by the time the cast return to bow. There are also two intervals of 15 minutes each - one after each hour of the play - so that might help with the play feeling like its speeding by. 

In Part 2: Perestroika, we continue following the lives of all of the characters we met in part 1 as their lives start to converge and their health dwindles. We're also introduced to more backstories from several of the characters - namely Harper and Roy Cohn - and the fantasy element of the play that is introduced in the end of Part 1 continues, with the final half an hour being one of the boldest moves I've ever read or seen; to end a drama as harrowing as this one on a weirdly fantastical note - in both Part 1 and Part 2 - almost flips the play's genre on its axis. Yes it's clunky and it takes some getting used to at times, but it's a move so bold and so daring, you can't help but applaud it.

The two parts differ in more than story though; Ian McNeil's stage design differs as well, with Part 1 being set in three different "zones" across the front of the stage, which turn and spin like the collection of doors in Monster's Inc. It's actually really exciting to watch and works very well in making all of the scenes feel incredible insular, before they distance themselves and we are introduced to the magnitude of the final scene of Part 1. In Part 2, those rotating structures are gone and the design is much more open-plan like it would be for most other shows at the Lyttelton, but that doesn't stop MacNeil taking us to Antartica and back in some scenes, as well as into heaven and back again into Central Park. The scope of this piece is wide and MacNeil's set - and Paule Constable's lighting - to match it is magnificent yet seemingly simplistic in a way that doesn't overpower Kushner's narrative.

Ian MacNeil's stage design - featuring Denise Gough and Nathan Stewart-Jarrett - in Angels in America

The cast are, of course, sublime as well. Andrew Garfield gives a performance of Prior Walter that, at first, felt like an awkward caricature of an effeminate gay man, but as the time progressed, he definitely melted into the role much more. By the time the closing monologue is given, you'd grown to love his character for everything that he is and the journey you've followed him taking, which was a warm feeling to close on. Walter's boyfriend, Louis Ironson, is played by James MacArdle who was previously at the National in Young Chekhov last Summer. MacArdle is one of my favourite stage actors and his performance is constructed with such excellence, even Garfield's wobbly performance at the start of the play couldn't shatter it. The two of them work together perfectly to create a couple that, when tragedy strikes, you want nothing more than for them to stay together until the end. MacArdle is brilliant.

The Pitt pairing are good too, but there is some rocky ground at times. Russell Tovey - who, as my friend says "has played every awkward gay character I've ever heard of" - plays a role like many others that he's played before, but it works for him. The same has to be said with one of my favourite actresses Denise Gough who plays his wife, Harper. Harper's struggle is similar to that of Emma in People, Places and Things, for which Gough won an Olivier Award for last year, but it's a style that definitely suits her. Surprisingly though, she probably gave the most underwhelming performance out of the bunch for me: her Harper never shaped as the play progressed, instead being a constant mess throughout, eventually feeling like the bad devil on Joseph and, later, Prior's shoulder.

Andrew Garfield as Prior Walter and Denise Gough as Harper Pitt in Angels in America: Part 2, Perestroika

The two best performances in Angels In America lie in the hands of Nathan Lane as Roy Cohn and Susan Brown as Hannah Pitt, amongst other roles (almost all of the actors in the play multi-role, but Brown does so the most successfully). Lane's Cohn is aggressive half of the time, but absolutely hilarious at others; he is a man who can crack a joke so smoothly that if you don't listen closely enough, you could miss it, but if you did catch it, you're in stitches. In comparison to his portrayal as Prior's ancestor near the end of Part 1 - and in comparison to other performances he has given in other films, TV and stage shows - it is clear that Nathan Lane has range and is bloody good at everything in it, too. The same is to be said of Susan Brown, an actress who I have seen many a time and who I am certain is giving the performance of her career right here. Brown not only plays Hannah - whose first introduction drives you to hate her, but soon becomes incredibly remorseful and lovable by the end. In addition, she also plays Rabbi Isidor Chemelwitz in the very opening of the play amongst several other random roles, which she executes perfectly each and every time. I for one would love to see Brown and Lane in a pairing that could work more closely together because they are certainly the ones with the chops around here.

The other two main cast members in the piece - and also the most underrated - are Amanda Lawrence as The Angel and Nathan Stewart-Jarrett as Belize. Perhaps it's easiest to overlook their talents as they both play a large selection of roles between the two of them, but they execute the two most important characters in the entire play with perfection. Lawrence's Angel is sinister, creepy and insightful in equal measure; The Angel is such a bizarre role to play that I'm astounded she managed to execute it so perfectly. Stewart-Jarrett's Belize is also incredibly funny and lovable, too - the kind of man you'd want as a best friend - and his performance in the Part 2 scene between himself and McArdle's Louis on the subject of race relations in America is so well played out, it deserves some sort of award of its own.

The incredible Nathan Lane as Roy Cohn in Angels in America: Part 2, Perestroika

Marianne Elliot, Ian MacNeil and Paule Constable - among other creatives - have reignited brilliant new life into this classic, 25 years after its premiere and Charlotte Bevan, Jim Carnahan and Jacob Sparrow's casting is a testament to that as well. This production of Angels may well be clunky at times and a bit mismatched, but it's such an epic feat that both Kushner and this new team at the National have created that, in all honestly, your love for it will make that an easy oversight.

Angels in America continues at the National Theatre, Lyttelton thru August 19th. The show is sold out, but be sure to check out the website for returns, or enter the Angels Ballot. The play will also be broadcast live via NTLive in July, with more information here.

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