Elegies for Angels, Punks, and Raging Queens (Union Theatre)

I slept on my review of this musical revival as I found it deeply moving in both its 30+ testimonies of lives cut short and the affirmation of “letting go” from those left behind.

Bill Russell’s sequence of poems and songs (set to music by Janet Hood and arranged here for piano – Henry Brennan- and cello – Pippa Mason) tells the stories of those lost to AIDS in the dark days of the 1980s.

The hedonist. The accountant who lapsed once. The caring nurse. The junkie. The Bible-basher. The shy boy welcomed home. The boy who went to New York for adventure.

The hemophiliac’s wife who lost her two children as well as her husband. The wife whose husband strayed and doomed them both. The lady who had a transfusion and found new friends stopped her feeling ashamed.

The diva with the camelia, veil and Mae West suggestion. The brother who was prevented from being buried with his lover until his sister intervened. The big spender.

The Vietnam vet who felt betrayed. The man who turned blame to hate. The sex worker who did naughty things. The girl who loved a boy in red.

Fraser Leigh Green and Matthew Grove in Elegies for Angels, Punks and Raging Queens
Fraser Leigh Green and Matthew Grove in Elegies for Angels, Punks and Raging Queens

We meet these and more through the vignettes and the ten songs which punctuate them, notably My Brother Lived In San Francisco, I’m Holding On To You, I Don’t Do That Any More, and the closer Learning To Let Go (which had the cast breaking the fourth wall and made me tear up).

There is no plot as such, just each panel of the American memorial quilt being laid as the one in memoriam talks about their life. Set designer Justin Williams and lighting desigber Alex Musgrave have created a blank square space which becomes anywhere and everywhere, before settling into those memorial panels.

The company of Elegies for Angels, Punks and Raging Queens
Ailsa Davidson in Elegies for Angels, Punks and Raging Queens

Watching and waiting is the sister who helped her brother spend forever with the man he loved, until, eventually she lays down her square.

Originally called The Quilt, this show continues to resonate, and is raising money in support for Make a Difference, a charity which supports those still living with HIV and AIDS.

This is the second show with lyrics by Bill Russell I have seen this year (the first was Side Show). I am very glad I accepted the invite to reacquaint myself with this incredible show, and to experience yet another new venue.

The company of Elegies for Angels, Punks and Raging Queens
The company of Elegies for Angels, Punks and Raging Queens

I won’t single out anyone in the wonderful cast, directed with such flair by Bryan Hodgson. They are – Fraser Leigh Green, Michael Janssens, Marcus Ayton, Calum Culvin, Aidan Harkins, Chris Cahill, Althea Burey, Jackie Pulford, Jade Marvin, Charlie McCullach, Ailsa Davidson, Jade Chaston, Rhys Taylor, Paice Fenlon, Kristine Kruse, and Matthew Grove. All actors to watch in the future.

Elegies continues until 8 June. Do go if you can to show your support. If you wish to make a donation to Make a Difference you can do so here.

Photo credits by Mark Senior.


Side Show (Questors Playhouse)

The story of conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton, sold to a side show as children but longing for normal lives, might not seem obvious material for a musical, but it works quite well here.

Victoria Jones and Sarah Lister in Side Show. Photo credit Stephen Brooks.
Victoria Jones and Sarah Lister in Side Show. Photo credit Stephen Brooks.

GLOC, an amateur theatre company based in Greenford, perform one large-scale musical a year, usually something that has been neglected – indeed there has only been one professional production of Side Show in the UK, at the Southwark Playhouse three years ago.

I first became aware of the Hilton sisters in the 1990s, when I saw them in the Tod Browning Hollywood film, Freaks. Despite the title, and the fact the film was banned for many years, it actually presents its cast of actors with disabilities and differences with some sympathy.

They were pretty and talented, and in more modern times may have been superstars, but work remained thin once vaudeville opportunities dried up. In the 1950s their story was fictionalised in an exploitation film, Chained for Life, and the twins ended their days working in a grocery store.

Side Show boasts a number of group numbers for the full cast, plus big voiced solos for minor characters like Jake (Matt Marchant, who effectively conveys frustration and affection for the twins), Terry (Mark Evans, who displays a vibrant vocal range), Houdini (Stefano Bassi, who also appears in chorus roles) and the twins themselves.

Dream sequences jostle with reality, with a lot of humour running through the piece, as the twins find their independence, reach for a bit of happiness, and then reconcile with the fact the world just sees them as curiosities.

Matthew Pimm’s director and choreography could put a number of professional productions to shame, and if there were a couple of microphone mishaps, these were easily overlooked with the excellent lighting and accomplished band led by Ken Williams.

Bill Russell and Henry Krieger’s songs are very good, and this musical deserves a bit more recognition, as do Daisy and Violet Hilton – here they are represented as women with the same dreams, emotions and ambitions as anyone else.

Side Show might be ripe for a professional revival, given the success of The Greatest Showman, which also features bearded ladies and the like. But while we wait, this production is on until Saturday at Ealing’s little theatre jewel, so go if you can.