Who would have thought a musical based on the 1980s Aids pandemic could be such an elevating, life-affirming theatrical experience? Nevertheless, the Union Theatre’s production of Elegies for Angels, Punks and Raging Queens manages to do just that by creating a show that celebrates the best of humanity in the face of adversity.
Originally entitled The Quilt and developed by poet and writer Bill Russell (inspired by Edgar Lee Masters 1915 work, Spoon River Anthology), with composer Janet Hood, at the height of the 1980s Aids pandemic, Elegies for Angels, Punks and Raging Queens is a collection of free-verse monologues and songs that reflects the lives of people remembered on the Aids Names Memorial Quilt.
The Names Quilt Project was conceived in 1985 by activist Cleve Jones who suggested that 3′ x 6’patchwork fabric panels be created by family and friends as a visual representation of loved ones lost to Aids. Displayed originally in Washington DC in October of 1987, it was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1988, and in 2005 the quilt was dedicated as an official American treasure. Thirty years later the quilt continues to grow and is the largest piece of community art in the world.
Elegies for Angels, Punks and Raging Queens focuses on over 30 stories told by the deceased. The characters represent all walks of life, ranging from gay men and straight married couples, drug addicts and those infected through blood transfusions.
One of the most poignant monologues of the evening comes from a South African woman who accuses her nation’s politicians of being “even more useless than husbands”. As characters deal with the realities of their inevitable demise, government indifference, social stigma and prejudice are often targets of the piece.
Despite the dark subject matter the monologues have a fair share of humour, and also focus on the bravery of friends, family and volunteer nurses who fought to help those who were dying.
Produced in support of the Make A Difference Trust, Bryan Hodgson’s production of Elegies for Angels, Punks and Raging Queens proves to be an honestly dramatic and touching piece of work. His tight direction effectively weaves the tales of a diverse tapestry of people affected by the commonality of terminal illness. The songs of the piece represent feelings of the living – those left behind in the aftermath of tragedy. Standout numbers included ‘Angels, Punks and Raging Queens,’ the comically truthful ‘Spend It While You Can’, and heart-wrenching ‘My Brother Lived In San Francisco.’ All the ensemble cast are superb, and engagingly deliver their spoken verse and musical numbers with a strong sense of commitment and emotional integrity.
Elegies for Angels, Punks and Raging Queens plays at London’s Union Theatre until 8th June 2019.