Many people today would have considered Covid-19 the first pandemic they have lived through, ignorant to the global HIV/AIDS pandemic which began in 1981 and which has killed six times as many people across the world and has even more living with the disease. The reality of why this might be is laid bare in Bren Gosling’s award-winning play Moment of Grace. The shame and denial which existed in the late 80’s at the time this piece is set still remains in many parts of our society today, more than 40 years after the first case was diagnosed.
At the time the disease seemed to be reserved for those who society cared less for, and so governments around the world turned their back on their own people in their time of need, a simple case of ‘if it doesn’t affect me and the people around me, and doesn’t come to my door, I don’t care’. Fortunately they couldn’t do the same in 2020 when Covid-19 appeared on their shores and threatened to destroy their economies, populations and even risked the lives of a number of world leaders and their families, some who sadly, despite their status, succumbed to the virus.
It’s important to remember this, what we have all been through, and the humility in people which can often appear when death comes knocking at their door, but its more important to remember those who didn’t need death to be knocking at their door in order to want step forward and help others. Gosling’s gritty three hander recounts Princess Diana’s visit to Britain’s first specialist HIV/AIDS Unit at London’s Middlesex Hospital in 1987, and her famous handshake with an AIDS patient whilst not wearing gloves. It is widely accepted that this single act changed the face of AIDS across the world, challenging the common held misconception that HIV/AIDS was passed from person to person through touch. Diana’s use of her fame and status to perform this single selfless act on that day demonstrated that this terrible disease and growing pandemic needed compassion and understanding, not ignorance and fear.
James Taylor-Thomas’ portrayal of Andrew, a patient on the ward that day, emotes the shame and scale of closeted gay men in the 80’s, and how this dreadful disease multiplied those feelings and left men like him fearful of so much more than a death… the truth, and how it would have a seemingly devastating impact their friends, family and even work colleagues if their positive HIV status was no longer a secret. “Its all clinics and crematoriums these days” he jokingly remarks, filling the role with welcome moments of comedy. Richard Costello who plays Donnie, a middle aged fireman whose toxic masculinity is at such a level that he’s unable to love even his own children for who they are, was expertly acted and oozed truth from start to finish. Costello was very much the voice of the average man at that time, filled with attitude and spitting language that was so common then but would be found unacceptable today. His character’s evolution in just a few scenes was intense and difficult to watch at times, a telling sign of a good actor.
Narisha Lawson, who plays Jude, a 24-year-old Nurse who has stepped forward to work on the new HIV/AIDS ward when most refused, gives a stand-out, heart-warming portrayal of her character, who displays even more courage and kindness than the Princess of Wales whilst carrying out her day-to-day work. The reality of this including the risk of being “outed as an AIDS worker and being evicted” from her home describes the scale of the fear in the UK at that time. Lawson’s honest and often gripping delivery of her lines describing how some of her patients have died “within hours of arriving on ward”, and “in one week 7 of the 12 patients had passed away”, reminds us all of how powerless those who have offered to care for us in our time of need can be when these dreadful diseases take hold. Nothing was more emotional in Lawson’s portrayal than her acting of the moment Jude witnessed a previously stone faced aggressive mother, laying in bed with her son, cradling him as “his experience of dying” saw the tide turn from fear to love.
At only 55 minutes the play is gone in a flash but it leaves you with lasting thoughts of that terrifying time before effective medication and preventatives such as PrEP. Its incredibly humbling to witness a piece of theatre which is of a time such as this but which also holds so much relevance to today, tomorrow and each of our futures.
“I’m no Angel”, says Jude, “because if I was there would be no disease and none of these people would be here”.
The Judes of the world may not be angels who can hold back the tide or prevent bad things from happening to us, but they are our key workers all around the world, especially at the NHS, who have held the hands of the friends and family we have lost, and this play has left this reviewer thinking about them all this evening. Thank you.
Much more than a Moment of Grace – The Recs gives this timely reminder ★★★★ (four stars)