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The Theatreguide.London Review

Hampstead Theatre  Spring 2010

. . . or Angels In Britain, as it might also be called.

Jonathan Harvey's new play is openly a companion piece to Tony Kushner's epic of America in the AIDS years, employing clear parallels and open borrowings (along with some echoes of Nicholas de Jongh's Plague Over England).

It tells the story of homosexual life in Britain, from arrests and forced aversion therapy in the Nineteen Fifties, through Gay Lib in the Seventies and AIDS in the Eighties, to Graham-Norton-is-family-entertainment in the Naughties.

Harvey's play is not in the same league as Kushner's, and Hettie Macdonald's production is too hit-and-miss to evoke the same theatrical excitement.

But if you don't know Angels In America, Canary can serve as a useful and generally entertaining (and occasionally moving) history lesson.

The hook on which Harvey hangs his illustrated history lecture is a prominent and married police chief who has just been outed, and whose thoughts and memories prepare him to decide how to respond.

(One of the play's limitations can be seen right there. This one not-particularly-sympathetic man's dilemma is not big enough to carry the epic scope the play reaches for, and besides, there's really only one possible ending.)

His memories of the Fifties and Sixties, and his awareness of a younger generation's experience of the Eighties and beyond, make up the plot of the play, presented in a string of short scenes that vary from serious to satirical (Arch-puritan Mary Whitehouse is cheerfully ridiculed), from realistic to dreamlike

One direct steal from Kushner is a female character - the cop's wife - whose fantasies carry her across time and space to interact magically with others.

But despite the chronological jumping around and the doubling and redoubling of roles, too much of the evening just plods along without theatrical excitement or even forward movement.

It really isn't until the second act that the play really comes alive, with a comic scene of cast members planted in the audience heckling a Mary Whitehouse speech, and several movingly dramatic scenes involving an AIDS victim.

And neither play nor production ever achieve the epic political resonances they clearly strive for. The title refers to the claim that homosexuals are the canaries in the mine, the indicator of how dangerous society's repressive impulses are.

But despite the comic turns of Mrs. Whitehouse and a more sinister appearance by Mrs. Thatcher (briefly playing the role of Roy Cohn in Angels In America), and despite rather awkwardly dragging in the miners' strike, the play never really gives a sense of the world outside this handful of characters.

Philip Voss does his best to make the cop a real character rather than a plot device, and he clearly has fun doubling as a 1970s queen and especially as Mrs. Whitehouse.

Ben Allen is strong as the AIDS sufferer, and Ryan Sampson and Sean Gallagher effectively play younger and older versions of the Graham Norton-ish figure who serves as the play's moral voice.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -  Canary - Hampstead Theatre 2010


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