London 1982, in a bijou Earls Court Flat Terry is desperately trying to cling on to the fragments of his once glittering existence. Mirrorball is set in London in 1982 against a backdrop of Thatcherism and before the onset of the Falklands War and discovery of HIV/AIDS, This highly topical play centres on the relationship between two friends navigating a changing world. Anthony Bull’s dry black comedy Mirrorball directed by Yasmeen Arden premiers at Latitude before embarking on a UK tour in 2013/14.
Mirrorball was a show that took a while to get going, but which turned itself around with a strong second half, making it an interesting period piece about the early days of the AIDS crisis.
The first half of the performance is a conversation between a gay man (Terry) and his female best mate. It is largely light hearted in tone, with banter, bickering and tales of their sexual conquests (and disasters). However, despite the relaxed vibe the scene is trying to convey the dialogue feels fairly stilted, and there were several occasions where the actors came across as quite stiff and uncomfortable within their roles. I think this was probably a combination of the writing having a slightly strange idiom, and the actors’ unfamiliarity with the play and with their characters.
It is clearly set up in the first half that the gay man is quite promiscuous and is also quite unwell with a mystery illness. This was shown by large dark circles of makeup being drawn around the actor’s eyes, which were entirely overdone, and had the effect of making him look like a Halloween zombie, rather than someone dying from AIDS. At the end of the slightly unstructured first half, Terry collapses and is taken to hospital.
Now my first thought when Terry started to talk about being ill, and his symptoms, was that he had HIV, but as I thought the play was set in the modern day (as I had read no blurb or information about it beforehand to correct this assumption), I assumed that this hadn’t been discussed by the characters as it was so obvious that it wasn’t HIV, it didn’t need to be mentioned. Imagine then my surprise when at the start of the second half (in a rather clumsy plot device) another character says, ‘Well of course I’m going to be called up soon, it looks like this Falklands War isn’t ending any time soon’. Oh, of course, it’s meant to be the 80’s!! Well why didn’t you say so?
I found it extraordinary that in the entire first half, there was nothing in the script or in the set to explicitly reveal the era in which the play was set. Ok, the characters were dressed in non-conventional clothes, but nothing I wouldn’t see out on a Saturday night in Brighton, and sure, they were playing records, but trendy people still do that nowadays. It is also likely that I missed the odd pop culture reference that might have placed the date, but that subtlety is an odd juxtaposition with the obviousness of the Falklands & Maggie Thatcher references in the second half. So once I knew the date, then of course I could see this was a play about the early days of AIDS, and suddenly it all became more interesting.
I suppose it is a problem fairly unique to a festival such as Latitude where punters just go along to a play (included in their ticket price) without knowing anything about it at all (sometimes not even the name of the show), but it does raise an interesting point about how much prior knowledge playwrights assume their audience have, and the consequences if they don’t.
The second half really turned the show around for me, and brought it up to its 3 star rating. The dialogue (between the best friend and her boyfriend) seemed more natural, and touched on relevant and interesting topics such as homophobia, the crippling fear, misinformation and lack of knowledge that the onset of the AIDS crisis brought about, and also love and compassion between friends. It also brought home to me for the first time what the reality of the AIDS crisis must have been like for the friends, family and lovers of those dying from this horrendous and terrifying disease. As someone who works in the field of HIV and who has many gay friends, this part of the piece really spoke to me and I found it a very sad and moving ending.
I think this play has a huge amount going for it, and is addressing an issue that is long forgotten but needs to be remembered. It is just a shame that the quality was inconsistent. With work on the first half, this show would be excellent.