Angels in America Part 1 & 2

There's no doubt that when Tony Kushner's "Gay Fantasia on National Themes" first came to the stage in the early nineties, it was like little that had been seen before – both in terms of showing that people dealing with the disease weren't always heroes or activists, and with the fantastical, almost operatic use of angels and surreal confusing dreamlike sequences it put before us. There's also no doubt that this sold-out revival at the National Theatre nearly 25 years later is bursting with supreme acting talent from some of the best performers on stage right now.

Perhaps we just need to accept that the script, whilst groundbreaking then, has a better home in the memory of the past than the theatre of the present.

With this set-up then, there's no doubt that five star plaudits and life-affirming experiences will be proclaimed from most who sit through the long eight hours of the two plays (well, it's one play in two parts really) that will overshadow the aches in the posterior. And so it feels like being a pariah who has missed something to say this now feels like an exhausting, sprawling mess that lacks energy, consistency or emotion to have the expected impact and leaves you feeling dissatisfied, unmoved and disappointed.

It's 1985, when the knowledge and understanding of AIDS was low and the prejudice against those with the disease high. And in Angels, it's a time when gay men spilt into three categories; the campy, the closeted and the self-loathing. Prior Walter is the protagonist who clings on to camp affectation and semi-drag as support whilst degenerating into exhaustion and fantasies of seeing angels that profess he is a prophet – pining for boyfriend Louis who leaves him through not being able to cope with the illness. Joe Pitt, the All-American Reaganite married Mormon, trying to do "right" with his wife, whilst trying to find love (or satisfy lust) with a man. Roy Cohn, the real-life lawyer who publicly insisted his illness was liver cancer rather than AIDS as the latter was something "homosexuals have". The stories of the three intertwine like multiple ongoing episodes with little build, consistency or energy from one to the other. There are strong speeches and moving scenes, but it all starts and stops and starts again and it now feels like lots of audition speeches rather than a better sum of its parts.

The performances within these show pieces are outstanding. Andrew Garfield as Prior may be unrecognisable to fans of Spider-Man (though the range of character he is able to inhabit may be familiar to those who remember him from The Laramie Project that set him out on his current road to stardom) – whether a ball of sweat and panic or in sunglasses and frock coat all flapping hands and "Miss Thang". Denise Gough retains her position as "Queen of The Stage Victim" with her performance as Harper, the drug-addled lonely wife of closeted Joe. And Nathan Lane draws some empathy for the angry, bitter, inherently camp dislikeable Cohn.

Alone, some of the speeches are poetically moving. See any of the scenes separately and you will be watching an acting masterclass. Sit through an act and you'll start checking your watch for the interval. And sit through both plays, and you won't be alone by congratulating yourself for getting to the end – there's a ripple of relief and murmurs of "only one hour to go" at the end of the fourth interval. There's a sense that you've achieved a marathon rather than lived through an experience.

Even the massive set pieces – seven performers make up the angel; heaven is like the inside of the TARDIS; the stage filled with snow to create the Antarctic – whilst strong photographic images alone, lack any cohesion and seem designed on individual bases. The same settings are sometimes wheeled on and offstage and other times flown up from the downstage pit with little consideration for where they have been before. Points given for using the entirety of the vast Lyttleton stage for its own sake at least.

Perhaps it is just more dated than expected. Not just the messaging and the world of terrifyingly recent history that it deals with but in terms of what a theatrical event can really do today. Perhaps the audience is made up of so many with memories of why the original was so important that the power of the parts makes up for the lack of a whole for many. Perhaps ticking boxes has got in the way of making this feel as new and fresh as it could be. But perhaps we just need to accept that the script, whilst groundbreaking then, has a better home in the memory of the past than the theatre of the present. The excitement around getting a ticket and being part of what is a huge theatrical event is going nowhere – but to walk out of this with such high expectations being replaced by a desire to get to bed feels the sad but true shared emotion.

Reviews by Simon Ximenez


Viola's Room

Garrick Theatre

Regards to Broadway

Trafalgar Theatre

People, Places & Things

Lyttelton Theatre

London Tide

Dorfman Theatre

Underdog: The Other Other Brontë

Gillian Lynne Theatre

Standing at the Sky's Edge


Since you’re here…

… we have a small favour to ask. We don't want your money to support a hack's bar bill at Abattoir, but if you have a pound or two spare, we really encourage you to support a good cause. If this review has either helped you discover a gem or avoid a turkey, consider doing some good that will really make a difference.

You can donate to the charity of your choice, but if you're looking for inspiration, there are three charities we really like.

Mama Biashara
Kate Copstick’s charity, Mama Biashara, works with the poorest and most marginalised people in Kenya. They give grants to set up small, sustainable businesses that bring financial independence and security. That five quid you spend on a large glass of House White? They can save someone’s life with that. And the money for a pair of Air Jordans? Will take four women and their fifteen children away from a man who is raping them and into a new life with a moneymaking business for Mum and happiness for the kids.
Donate to Mama Biashara now

Theatre MAD
The Make A Difference Trust fights HIV & AIDS one stage at a time. Their UK and International grant-making strategy is based on five criteria that raise awareness, educate, and provide care and support for the most vulnerable in society. A host of fundraising events, including Bucket Collections, Late Night Cabarets, West End Eurovision, West End Bares and A West End Christmas continue to raise funds for projects both in the UK and Sub-Saharan Africa.
Donate to Theatre MAD now

Acting For Others
Acting for Others provides financial and emotional support to all theatre workers in times of need through the 14 member charities. During the COVID-19 crisis Acting for Others have raised over £1.7m to support theatre workers affected by the pandemic.
Donate to Acting For Others now



The Blurb

America in the mid-1980s. In the midst of the AIDS crisis and a conservative Reagan administration, New Yorkers grapple with life and death, love and sex, heaven and hell.

The cast includes Andrew Garfield playing Prior Walter, Denise Gough playing Harper Pitt, Nathan Lane playing Roy Cohn, James McArdle playing Louis Ironson and Russell Tovey playing Joe Pitt.

Angels in America will also be broadcast to cinemas by NT Live from 20 July.

Most Popular See More

Frozen the Musical

From £36.00

More Info

Find Tickets


From £30.00

More Info

Find Tickets

The Lion King

From £46.00

More Info

Find Tickets

Back to the Future - The Musical

From £24.00

More Info

Find Tickets

Matilda the Musical

From £24.00

More Info

Find Tickets

The Mousetrap

From £30.00

More Info

Find Tickets