Friday, 18 June 2021

Performing arts students meet the challenge of AIDS drama

Performing arts students meet the challenge of AIDS drama

The Normal Heart | Henley Town Hall | Thursday, March 22

LARRY Kramer’s semi-autobiographical play spanning the HIV/AIDS crisis between 1981 and 1984 first saw life both off- and on Broadway in 1985, before receiving a European premiere in 1986 at London’s Royal Court Theatre and subsequently transferring to the Albery.

A team of 16- and 17-year-olds from The Henley College, under the direction of performing arts staffer Neil McCurley, took on this ambitious work for three performances last week at the council chambers.

Ned Weeks (Athanasios Metaxas) is a Jewish-American writer, gay activist and founder of what is referred to in the play as “the organization” — a high-profile HIV advocacy group. He leans in vain on his lawyer brother Ben Weeks (Kevin Mesiti) for funding, and his fashion writer friend at the New York Times, Felix Turner (Sam Burton-Harris), for publicity.

But the actions of neither party are enough to assuage Ned’s burning impatience to change public awareness of the cause.

Meanwhile, Bruce Niles (Josh Shortland) is a temperate campaigner who curries more favour with his peers, reluctantly securing the role of president of the group.

A wheelchair-bound Dr Emma Brookner (Freya Foster) witnesses first-hand the devastation wreaked upon hundreds of young New York men, and is cruelly denied government funding for further research into this as yet little understood illness.

The energetic cast bravely demonstrated their skills in these intimate surroundings. A two-sided audience flanked an open set consisting of a desk of officialdom at one end and a hospital gurney at the other, both sandwiching a sofa bed in the middle.

Not only were New York accents sometimes impeccably honed, but both Metaxas and Burton-Harris as Ned and Felix demonstrated a gravitas and emotional range belying their age.

After the two enter into a relationship, Metaxas’s fiery impetuousness counters Burton-Harris’s calm resignation, as the latter’s downfall from illness begins to take hold.

Josh Shortland brilliantly captured the maturity and reasoned judgment of group president Bruce, while Kevin Mesiti let forth a convincing torrent of rage at his brother during one of several heated exchanges at his law firm desk.

Oscar Hogg-Gomez’s performance as loyal Hispanic group member Mickey was also both sharply focused and driven.

The Normal Heart is a challenging work even for a seasoned professional company, but that a teenage acting troupe can keep an audience of fellow students, parents and the general public riveted for the best part of two and a half hours, is a fact of which every member of the cast and crew should be justifiably proud.

Martin Dew

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