As Is – A Review

It isn’t often that I find myself following in the cultural footsteps of Stephen Fry, but yesterday morning’s Twitter browsing revealed that Fry had spent the previous evening at the play I had tickets for that evening. A play that officially opened on Thursday, that’s only running for the rest of this month and in a tiny theatre – what were the chances?

As a disclaimer, I will point out that the main reason I had a ticket at all was because an old friend stars in the production. However, all my views are my own and honest at that – he knows that if I don’t like something I’ll say so, even if it’s at his expense!

As Is was first staged in 1985 and is widely regarded as being the first play about AIDS. William Hoffman wrote it in the midst of seeing at first-hand the damage that this mysterious disease was doing to his circle of friends. Set primarily in St Vincent’s Hospital, a hospice for many of New York’s first AIDS victims, the play explores attitudes and reactions to the disease from both within and outside the gay community. Through the story of Rich and Saul – a couple brought back together after the former is diagnosed – and flashbacks of their lives together, the audience is drawn into the world of those first years of the devastating outbreak.

Saul & Rich - As Is, Finborough Theatre Saul (David Poynor) & Rich (Tom Colley).

It’s intense. Finborough Theatre is small – very small – and the audience is close to the action at all times. It runs for 90 minutes with no interval, so the atmosphere is never broken. When I stood up at the end of the performance, I had to unfold myself out of the position I’d been sitting in without moving for the entire duration, so absorbed I barely moved an inch from start to finish. The cast get little time off the stage too, forming a chorus behind the main players until the play’s final scenes. It’s emotional, it couldn’t be a play about the death of so many people without emotion, but it’s genuine. The cast carry that emotion and draw the audience in. You root for Rich and Saul, for their relationship with one another, for Rich’s health, for their friends and family…

And then you remember that this isn’t fiction. Rich and Saul may not be real, but they’re based on real people – many of them. That the fear that Rich has about dying and the fear Saul has of catching the disease were (and are) genuine. In the early 1980’s no one really understood exactly what was going on, just that countless friends were dying, often in horrible ways.

As Is hasn’t been staged in the UK since 1987 – perhaps people felt it was passé, that with Angels in America and Rent, the AIDS thing had kind of been done – but it isn’t passé, far from it. The world has been aware of AIDS for almost exactly the same length of time as I’ve been in existence, and although there have been massive medical advances and huge progress in attitudes to the disease, there’s still no cure. It is still a disease of pandemic proportions. But I wonder if western society forgets that when AIDS first emerged it was healthy white men it struck down first, and instead concentrate on its impact on the African subcontinent – AIDS is now something that happens ‘over there’. Except it happens here too. It’s not sorted.

I was surprised by how much the play seemed to have to say about God in the context of this epidemic. Reading Hoffman’s preface in the programme notes, I noticed a mention of God in the writing of the play:

“I was willing to go to any lengths for my play, except to imagine myself having AIDS. I was not afraid of contracting the disease through casual physical contact with those who had it. I was well aware that AIDS is transmitted only by an exchange of bodily fluids. But on a deeply irrational level, I was terrified of catching it by identifying with those who had it. Consequently, for a long period, my central characters, Rich and Saul, were shadowy and undeveloped, compared with the background figures. But one day I realized the depth of my fear and asked God to protect me as I wrote the play. He did.”

The audience is led through the play’s events by an Irish could-have-been-a-nun hospice worker, whose faith is evident in her regular monologues – something you might expect from someone who was nearly a nun. What is unexpected are the depictions of religious experience that both Rich and Saul (who describes himself as an atheist, from a Jewish family) have. On the last day before the illness that eventually led to his diagnosis, Rich experiences the presence of God and the beauty of creation as he runs past New York’s bridges. Saul seems sceptical of religion until a pivotal moment in the play (I’ll avoid spoilers), when God seems to speak to him in the reflection of a sex-shop sign in a puddle. God moves in very mysterious ways…

What I loved about the play, aside from the excellent performances and intense subject, was that it wasn’t without hope. In 1985 it would have been very easy to write a play that was hopeless and full of death, in the context of a pandemic that was still raging. But that’s not what As Is is about, it’s hopeful. Hopeful that not all will die, that attitudes can and do change, that relationships can be rekindled and that God is amongst all of it.

The play runs at the Finborough Theatre near Earls Court until the end of August and tickets are a veritable bargain for a London production. I could not recommend it more highly! (You don’t need to just take my word for it either, the BBC and Time Out have also had very positive things to say about it.)

The luck of the (Northern) Irish

Visits to Belfast are always punctuated with the regular consummation of tea and cake – not just because a wealth of tea is available in my parents’ home (all nicely labelled, obviously) but because the city possesses some of the best places in which to sit and eat cake.

For a start, my Dad’s theological college has tea and scones every morning. Who couldn’t fail to love an institution that pauses at 10.50 every day for such a refreshment? And, when I say ‘scones’ I don’t just mean the regular raisin variety, I mean baskets of all sorts of variations – wholemeal with dates; strawberry and white chocolate; cherry; plain… It makes our St Mellitus biscuit assortment on a Monday morning pale in comparison.

Edgehill SconesA basket of Edgehill scones.

Then there’s the hitlist of places I require a visit to on every trip to the city…

Avoca [renamed ‘Avocado’ by the iPhone autocorrect] which also does a fantastic line in scones. (What can I say, I love a good scone – as long as it’s sweet. Savoury scones are wrong, wrong, wrong.) Their pear and vanilla scone has to be consumed to be believed! On this particular trip, as I’d only had a college scone a couple of hours previously, I went for the lunch option of Carrot & Ginger soup with a side of wheaten bread – utterly delicious. The café is the upper floor of an equally delightful shop that sells what can simply be described as ‘nice things’. The foodie bit of it is wonderful, and a good place to go for an affordable dessert for a dinner party if you want your guests to be fooled into believing that you made it yourself.

The Ikea café. Yes, I appreciate that one can eat Swedish meatballs in practically every major city around the world, but Belfast’s Ikea must have the most entertaining cafe view of the entire chain. In Edmonton you look out over a roundabout; in Wembley it’s the A40; and in most other locations it’s the car park, but in Belfast it’s the runway of Belfast City Airport. [We don’t ever refer to the ‘George Best’ bit of its name.] You don’t need to be a plane spotter to appreciate the entertainment value of planes landing and taking off, though it becomes rather more geeky when your companion uses their flightchecker app to establish the destination/origin of each plane. Plus, what’s not love about a mid-morning tea break that includes free beverages (thank you Ikea Family Card) and three Swedish cakes for £1.50? I also love visiting Ikea when it’s physically impossible for me to buy anything but that which can be easily carried in hand luggage (basically, cushion covers and Swedish liquorice).

Common Grounds. The traditional Saturday brunch location of the Belfast Clutterbucks and an incredible example of social enterprise. Run by a combination of paid employees and volunteers, all  the profits are put into social transformation projects locally and abroad. It has a fabulous atmosphere and delicious food, plus lovely means of showing love to others. They had the ‘suspended coffee’ concept long before Starbucks and you can also pay for a coffee/snack for a friend when they next visit – the chalkboard above the counter bears the names of those who have a treat awaiting them. It’s no wonder that it’s effectively become my mother’s second office. According to their website, in their 8 and a half years of existence, they’ve given away over £55,000 – quite a feat.

Lunch at Common Grounds & Harlem CafeOn the left, my go-to savoury brunch at Common Grounds (potato cakes with chilli sauce) & the Veggie Fry at Harlem Café. There’s a potato theme…

Harlem Café. A new addition to my ‘places to visit in Belfast’ list, but well-deserved. It’s eclectically decorated with myriad ojects d’art, generally vintage themed, but with a cracking menu of local delights. (I had their Vegetarian Fry, which was carbtastic in a way that only happens in Ireland – potato farls, soda bread and pancakes!) I noted that they also do a range of afternoon tea options (something to explore on another visit), including a ‘Gentleman’s afternoon tea & cognac’ (with an optional cigar extra). The mind boggles…

The Dock. I’ve saved the best till last. This pop-up café may not be around forever, so catch it while it is! Located in a new shopping strip in the Titanic Quarter and barely a 5 minute stroll from the Titanic Experience, this café is run by the Church of Ireland and staffed entirely by volunteers. There are no prices, you simply donate what you feel your food and drink was worth. (I’m virtually certain this results in people giving more than they might actually have been asked to pay.) There’s a mix of furniture; interesting art on the walls; friendly volunteer staff; free books; and they serve Suki Tea, seriously, this place is amazing!

Homemade Chocolate Tea CakesHomemade chocolate tea-cakes at The Dock. I am now obsessed with getting hold of a silicone mould in which to try this out myself – as inspired by a technical challenge on the last series of the GBBO.

Oh, and talking of the awesome Suki Tea, my other Belfast foodie essential is St George’s Market, where I was able to stock up on tea leaves – Earl Grey Blue Flower (a classic) and Mango Tango (a newbie, sampled at The Dock and likely to be an excellent candidate for summer iced tea making).

Wee Buns at St George's MarketAnd this stall, at St George’s Market, will always make me giggle. Because I am a child.

A Titanic “experience”

The most popular tourist attraction in Belfast has, for the last year, been the curiously named ‘Titanic Experience’. What kind of an experience do visitors have? You may well wonder…

On my last trip to Belfast (11 months ago), we attempted to pay a visit but discovered that owing to its popularity, advance booking was essential. [Instead we explored the incredibly moving memorial to the ship in the dock where it was built.] This time, tickets were booked as soon as my flights were confirmed and, this afternoon, my mother and I spent nearly two hours thoroughly ‘experiencing’ the Titanic. [She’d visited a few months ago and was insistent that a visit was well worth it.]

I’m pleased to report that the experience element of the museum has nothing to do with the events of April 1912 – there is no water and no ice. In fact, the exhibition does an amazing job of not sensationalising the disaster that befell the Ship of Dreams. (Not that the disaster wasn’t a massive tragedy, just that it’s one aspect of the ship and the shipyard’s history.)

H&WHarland & Wolf gates

Instead, what you experience is what the process of shipbuilding was like in the early part of the twentieth century. That may not sound particularly riveting (!), but it really was. Ok, I’m a history geek and love nothing more than a good exploration of social history, but this was done brilliantly – not least the bit of the experience entitled ‘shipbuilding ride’. I’ll say no more, but it was funner than it sounds.

Part of the experience is the result of the building’s architecture – based on the ship’s design and the iceberg that sank it. At various points you emerge from the galleries into light spaces with windows looking out on to the docks. In one such moment, you can stand in precisely the place where Kate and Leo were on top of the world…

View from the bow of the TitanicView from the bow of the Titanic while it was being built.

Ship building transformed the city of Belfast and this is a fantastic testament to that element of its history. It’s also a moving memorial to one of the shipping revolution’s biggest disasters. There isn’t a minute by minute rundown of how the sinking occurred (surely most people know the score thanks to James Cameron?), instead, you see it as it was recorded by the wireless operators on board the Titanic and other ships in the area, including the Carpathia which ultimately came to the surviving passengers’ rescue. The rescue operation, inquest and stories of those lost are chronicled with sensitive detail.

Glimpses of the TitanicThe bow of the Titanic as it now looks under water.

Oh, and it’s only fair to warn you that the penultimate gallery (prior to a segment on the discovery of the wreck in 1985) is dedicated to depictions of the tragedy in the arts. Obviously, this section is accompanied by Celine Dion singing *that* song, meaning that thereafter, you will find yourself humming or even singing it to yourself. Admittedly, I should probably confess that I entered the building with a mental list of a musical Titanic medley, consisting of For Those in Peril on the Sea (sung in a service on board), Nearer my God to Thee (played as it sank) and *that* song. Until musical references crept into the later stages of the exhibition, I’d managed to stay quiet. Afterwards, it was an impossibility.

Anyway, if you ever find yourself in the city with a few hours to spare – go. Only don’t try and attempt it with a school group. It’s booked out for school parties until 2015 apparently. That’s how good it is.

Titanic Experience & former H&W building

An evening with the stars and the moon

There’s nothing quite like a quintessentially geeky Saturday afternoon pursuit to make your weekend – like going to the Planetarium to watch a film about the Life of Stars. The Observatory at Greenwich is now home of London’s only Planetarium, which seems appropriate, what with its long history (and excellent vantage point) of looking into the sky…

It’s worth the trip, for a whole host of reasons. Firstly, at the moment it’s home to an exhibition of the 2011 Astronomy Photographer of the Year 2011 competition – turns out you can enter with photos taken with very normal cameras and without the use of a telescope. Who knew? This was my personal favourite:

Then there was the film itself. The whole thing was infinitely relaxing – comfy, reclining seats; notices given by a fantastically calm and soothing voice; film narration by Patrick Stewart; pretty dancing stars…in fact, the only thing that could have enhanced the experience was a can of G&T (or, I’ve heard, some unorthodox substances). It was a good job it was relaxing, as a less calm person might have started to panic over the fact that our sun is likely to die in x billion billion years. [It was so relaxing that I took in very little of its precise facts.] It’s fortunate that this event is also:
(i) A very long way off.
(ii) When it does happen, it will be beautiful in a pink and purple way.

If you do go, choose the last showing of the day (at 3.15pm) as you’ll emerge just as the London skyline is disappearing into the sunset. This would be a beautiful sight most days, but on Saturday, it was as if the nerd friend who organised the trip had also managed to sort out a few natural phenomenon too…

1. An utterly fantastically mesmerising sunset.

2. A partial lunar eclipse. 
Ok, it won’t win me Astronomy Photographer of the Year 2012, but you get the idea.

3. A brilliant winter moon.
If only one of us had had a butterfly net with us, this could have been my entry…
All this excitement AND I got to travel home by boat. What a simply superb Saturday. 

The gift of new music

It’s great to be able to have fun for free and, fortunately, London provides more opportunities than you might think for such things. I’m a particular fan of free musical experiences, which often come courtesy of friends (or friends of friends) who happen to be in bands, or write music, or are just rather talented.

It’s especially good when free music turns up on your doorstep without you being required to make any effort in experiencing it. A couple of weeks ago my Tuesday afternoon at the church office was accompanied by the sound of a talented young man making a music video. [For one occasion only, I was able to use “I’m sorry, I can’t answer your phone call, there’s a music video being filmed in the church” as an excuse.] Such a scenario could have been awful, had the music been rubbish, but luckily it wasn’t – probably owing to the fact that he writes his music with our worship leader and my wise friend’s husband. Genii, the lot of them. One of the videos he filmed is below (both were covers), but there’s lots more of his material on his YouTube channel. I think the church looks rather good in them too…

I also rather like it when good music is in cahoots with a good cause. The Lorelles are fab and lovely generally, but the fact that they’re giving all the proceeds from their single Riot in Your Heart to the Ignito Project [for whom I walked the Thames Path earlier this year] is brilliant. I urge you to buy it…

Then there’s the joy of discovering brand new music while at the same time having a cracking night out and catching up with friends unseen for far too long. Monday was such a night, courtesy of MoRo’s launch of their debut album Slow River. They’re an interesting combination of Motown and rock (I’m beginning to see where their name might come from…) and also the performers of the best cow bell interlude I’ve ever witnessed.

Consider these recommendations an early Christmas present from me. You’re welcome.