When you think about plays concerning AIDS your mind immediately jumps to American classics such as Kushner's 'Angels in America' or Kramer's 'The Normal Heart', which have since become modern classics. Whilst there are many plays that deal with the topic, and often very well, there are not many that bill themselves as an outright 'comedy'. Positive by Shaun Kitchener, which is currently playing at the Waterloo East Theatre is refreshingly different. A modern story about young people living with the HIV virus in the contemporary age.
Kitchener's story follows the lives of two people, Benji and Nikki living with HIV, interestingly a boy and a girl. Whilst their stories and situations do not become fully clear until the end, they both give different, yet ultimately similar accounts of young people living with the virus today, including the pressures it puts on relationships and their family.
There are times when the play seems like an episode of 'Hollyoaks' - teenage angst, occasionally intense acting and a few cheesy jokes - but there are similarly times where the writing is honest, direct and ultimatley powerful. The play's strength lies in its structure - each story is told together, working backwards to the day Benji tested positive. Whilst the subject matter doesn't automatically sound like the best fit for a contemporary comedy, Kitchener is successful in making the piece feel light-hearted without trivialising the illness at any point. With sufficient moments of light and shade, the audience, just like the characters, are given a much needed lesson without ever feeling patronised or lectured to.
On the whole the characters are successfully developed, allowing a good mix of empathy and a solid balance between relationships so that no one ever feels overbearing. Timothy George is truly engaging as Benji, giving him the correct level of awkwardness, measured with the sensitivity needed for the audience to feel invested in his story. His onstage and offstage mother Sally George is suitably matronly as Margo, who is trying to come to terms with her son's position. It is their scene together in the second act that emerges as the strongest piece of writing and peformance.
There are many pleasing supporting performances, especially from Nathalie Barclay as HIV positive Nikki. She offers a mix of dry humour with raw emotion that helps her character to not go overlooked amongst the rest of the comedy, which can sometimes see the male characters fighting for the spotlight. Kitchener extends the writer's perogative by giving himself much of the comedy and the one liners in the role of Matt which does work but has the potential to become self indulgent.
The piece is let down somewhat by its direction, which at times feels slightly juvenile. The play has developed from a rehearsed reading to a stint at the Edinburgh Fringe, but now in the context of the London fringe, the direction really needs to step up to the next level. There are times where there is no sense of space - actors entering and exiting at random with no attention to reality, which plays against the naturalist setting and begins to undermine itself. There are some nice touches along the way, splitting scenes and some nice segues, but these need to be sharper and more direct in order to give the writing the lift it needs.
It's not helped by the barn like surroundings of the Waterloo East Theatre which fails to create any kind of intamacy, with many of the audience feeling miles away from the action. In a more focused space with some swifter changes and heightened sense of space, the play could give the audience a more direct view and allow the well crafted scenes to reach their full potential.
On the whole, this is an exciting and interesting piece that tackles a difficult subject in a refreshing light. Kitchener's writing is well structured, thoroughly engaging and in many parts laugh out loud funny. With some ironing out of inconsistencies and clearer direction this has the potential to be a memorable and thoroughly successful piece of new writing. I certainly hope it continues to develop.