Review by Paul Nelson
AFTER an inexplicable interval of some years, the sequel and prequel
to Larry Kramer's excellent play The Normal Heart has finally been
staged here in London, not in the West End where it truly belongs, but at
the excellent Finborough Theatre in Earls Court.
The Destiny Of Me is a lightning strike of a play. It is at all times real, sometimes amusing, and frequently a horrifying account of what the author suggests in a semi-autobiographical fashion, the naming and shaming of an American Jewish homosexual, who, refusing to be shamed and finally proud to be named, faces the remains of his life as a guinea pig for an AIDS cure.
During his hospitalisation, he recalls his youth, and his poverty stricken family life where hard work and dedication to both family and tiny money-earning jobs brought in meagre dollars.
With an over indulgent mother, a violent father who is as angry at life itself as he is with his sissy son, and a brother who is convinced that homosexuality can be cured, Ned Weeks endures the pain, humiliation and consequent degradations of not only being queer but then afflicted with the Plague.
Depicted as a man searching for true love, Ned's story is heartrending. His first serious affair is wrecked by his submission to psychiatry and the consequent belief that indeed he was doing 'wrong', his second, a brief period of bliss wrecked by his partner dying from AIDS and presumably infecting him too.
Above all the play is a fascinating account of a crumbling family, totally unaware that they are in a state of decay except in the eyes of the young Ned (a chosen name, his birth name being Alexander), a lost youth crying for guidance as all his adolescent glandular secretions shriek out for some sort of help. Knowing he is gay, unable to satisfy the urge because of social and family restrictions, his story is extraordinarily moving. The ground has been travelled before but never with such thoroughness and insight. As a document alone the play is worthwhile, as a drama it stands as an imperative command to go to the theatre to see it.
The cast deliver this piece of goods with unerring style in a production that has been directed with such a sure hand, and with such panache, that you sit and marvel at it.
The set is divided between the ward in the hospital and the family living room along with other places. The action flows between the two areas as the young Ned questions the old Ned, begging for answers. Alas, answers can only be earned by experience and older Ned is unable to give guidance other than as a conscience. This coup de theatre is directed by Drew Ackroyd. There is, what I would have thought an impossible scene to stage at the Finborough, where in the hospital the older Ned goes into shock through his revolutionary and innovative treatment while at the same time the entire family erupts in a vicious and violent quarrel. Why should I think this could not be staged at the Fin when after all we have had the entire American dustbowl staged there in the past?
Director Ackroyd knows his onions.
He is well assisted by his chosen cast. You will not believe the talent on show at this tiny theatre. Where do I start?
Ned Weeks Snr. Chris Andrew Mellon is amazingly talented. Virtually covered all over with drips, monitoring wires, sticking plasters, and taking pills and medicines endlessly, he gives what most actors would be proud to say was the performance of their career. Blow for blow he is matched by Ned Jnr. Daniel Hart. This young man has at his command expertise that to these old and experienced eyes is hard to come by. His body language as well as the delivery of his lines is something to put into your diary along with his name. We should be seeing a lot more of him.
Amanda Boxer as the mother Rena as always gives a truly and electrifying piece of acting. Ever believable, this actress to my mind continually surpasses what I have always come to think of as her definitive performance. As her husband Richard, Kevin Colson rather recklessly throws himself into the violence of his character, but it is certainly convincing.
Two mainly calm performances, the nurse Hanniman and the doctor Anthony Della Vida, are given brilliantly studied effective life by lyabo Amoke and Kevin Drury respectively. Just when the action gets grim, along comes Hanniman or Della Vida and the plot is given, if I may be forgiven, a shot in the butt.
Finally the elder brother Benjamin, the token normal heart, though not in fact the title role of the previous play, fills in all the missing pieces as he tries to take in and cure the homosexuality of his brother. Russell Bentley is equal to the others.
In short, you will go a long way to see a cast as good and as integrated as this. Again, salutes to Drew Ackroyd.
The final scene of the play where the two halves of Ned, the younger and the older, come to understand that life is all about growing up and facing both the reality and unreality of it all, is extremely moving.
From all this you will gather that you ought not to miss this play. I go further, you will be mad to miss it if you value a really excellent and enjoyable evening in the theatre. It is certain you will have to go a long way to see a play, production and cast with such expertise as this.
Picture shows: Amanda Boxer and Kevin Colson.
The Destiny Of Me by Larry Kramer Directed by Drew Ackroyd, designed by Rebecca Bevan, Lighting by Tom Cousins. WITH: Chris Andrew Mellon (Ned Weeks), lyabo Amoke (Nurse Hanniman), Kevin Drury (Dr Anthony Della Vida), Daniel Hart (Alexander Weeks), Kevin Colson (Richard Weeks), Amanda Boxer (Rena Weeks), Russell Bentley (Benjamin Weeks). Produced by Elizabeth Freestone, Productions Absolute in association with Concordance at The Finborough Theatre, 118 Finborough Road, London SW10. Tickets 020 7373 3842.