Hope Mill Theatre, Manchester
Hope Mill production with Turbine Theatre, London; Sheffield Crucible; Liverpool Everyman and York Theatre Royal.
Online June 11- 20, 2021; gala streamed night at Hope Mill June 12.
Nathan McMullen as Danny
Confirming its place as one of regional theatre’s most important producing venues, Hope Mill has gathered an impressive company for this streaming production of Jonathan Harvey’s rarely-revived, living-with-AIDS, mix of heaven and earth, fantasy and reality.
First seen at Crewe Lyceum in 1999, Hushabye spans the 1990s, a time when combination therapies were beginning to provide hope for AIDS sufferers where there had been nothing but a bleak, short future before.
In a series of flashbacks interlaced with fantasy sequences AIDS victim Danny (Nathan McMullen) is waiting to be admitted to heaven, apparently by Judy Garland, in a boat – a sequence vaguely reminiscent of a strand from Carousel (Harvey clearly knows his musicals).
Connor (Layton Williams), Danny’s partner, is distraught with grief, but, as Danny ordered, is trying to find a new love, currently a young Buddhist named Ben (Harrison Scott-Smith).
Danny’s brother and sister-in-law Lee and Lana (Matt Henry and Amy Dunn) are also finding his death has left a void in their lives, and then there’s Danny’s mother Beryl (Jodie Prenger), currently in a psychiatric unit but popping up here and there as the Bird Woman from Mary Poppins, a cigarette-smoking Virgin Mary and, most notably, as the aforementioned Judy Garland.
The title comes from a lullaby from the film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (Prenger signs off the whole show with an impressive rendition of it) and is the first warning of the sort of sentiment and fantasy that under-scores the evening. Lots of whimsy and camp, grief and survivor guilt, as well as irrational resentment that the new drugs offer a long life but are too late for many. There’s constant dodging backward and forward between past and present, reality and fantasy. There are strong echoes too of Tony Kushner’s previous-decade Angels In America, but without, it has to be said, the unforgettable impact of that piece.
At around two hours 15 minutes it is a little over-long and the fantasy sections in particular tend to outstay their welcome. When Harvey hunkers down on the serious stuff it works much better, and he has plenty to say. Williams and McMullen, the central pair, are very convincing while Prenger is required to wrestle with a wide range of accents and not terribly interesting monologues.
The overall presentation is very much that of a filmed stage show, performed on a composite set of brick walls, steps and projections. The cast are all on radio mics – unusual for a straight (no pun intended) play – and definitely helping to pack an intimate punch.
Info and ticket details here