A show about a disparate group of people for whom the only common thread is their cause of death? Not your run-of-the-mill material for a song cycle, admittedly, but Elegies found its origins in the awe-inspiring NAMES Project AIDS Quilt, which serves as both memorial and celebration of the disease’s victims – over 94,000 as of 2012. In the same way the Quilt is a patchwork of many different lives, each of the Elegies free-verse monologues and songs deal with contrasting types of AIDS casualty. From the somewhat-expected soliloquies by a drug user and promiscuous homosexual, to the heart-wrenching tale of a nurse who contracted HIV while tending patients.
Elegies doesn’t often get a professional outing, since it calls for a large cast of over 30 speaking roles plus singers. So if you’ve seen it before then it’s most likely that you saw either a reduced cast or student group tackle it. In this version director Joseph C Walsh has assembled both a full and professional company – so many in fact, that at times you can’t see the current singer for the crowd of actors. However the decision to do this must be applauded, since if – like me – you’ve only ever seen the double / triple casted versions before, it’s only when you see this many players in a fringe setting that you appreciate how the writer was trying to convey a sense of scale when it comes to victims of AIDS. Just like the Quilt demonstrates, the number of people lost to the disease is depressingly huge. During the opening song, I became acutely aware of the reason it seemed every inch of the stage and auditorium was filled – an emotional revelation I hadn’t experienced in Elegies before.
Elegies is an interesting mix of verse and song. Although the subject matter is dark, the first-person stories of how each succumbed to their fate is told with an accepting smile. The songs are often friends and family remembering the lives of the ones they love, the stand-outs being the titular Angels, Punks and Raging Queens, And The Rain Keeps Falling Down and my personal favourite, My Brother Lived in San Francisco. It’s a true ensemble piece which allows each of the characters to shine, but the show is stolen by singers Justine Marie Mead and Helen Hart. The pair bring the energy that glues the entire piece together. Ballsy, vigourous performances that stop this show becoming tearfully sentimental.
If I had a criticism then it would be the staging makes no reference to the Quilt itself. Unless you’d read the programme notes, you may not be aware the Quilt existed at all or its connection with the show. Which would be a pity, as that knowledge really is the ingredient that makes this decent song cycle a stunning piece of theatre. This niggle aside, however, this really is a gem, rarely staged on this scale so well worth a trip out to Docklands.