National Theatre: The Normal Heart

Ben Daniels and Dino Fetscher in The Normal Heart

Ben Daniels and Dino Fetscher in The Normal Heart - Credit: Helen Maybanks

One can imagine the political urgency of this play on its debut in 1985 - when Reagan and much of the world were still ignoring the mounting deaths from AIDS.

By then activist Larry Kramer had been fighting for resources and recognition of a disease that was decimating his community for nearly four years. This is his outpouring of anger and frustration that at times feels like an animated set of confrontations - a vital pulse take of New York's gay community as they face a mortal threat in the teeth of widespread indifference.

But it's a testament to his scything humour, passionate arguments, and Dominic Cooke's taut revival - staged in the round on Vicki Mortimer's minimal set - that it still feels engrossing and raw.

Ben Daniels', wealthy Ned Weekes, is an opinionated 'loud mouth', who buts up against media, and City Hall homophobia as well as resistance from a community that only recently earned the right to love freely, and don't want to be told to stop having sex.

The Normal Heart

Danny Lee Wynter and Luke Norris in The Normal Heart at The National Theatre - Credit: Helen Maybanks

Between seeking help from Liz Carr's caustic Doctor Brookner, setting up helplines, slagging off the Mayor, and fronting up his lawyer brother about acceptance, he falls in love with New York Times journalist Felix.

Fear stalks and divides this oppressed community, who live in a deeply hostile environment where they can't come out to colleagues or support 'gay causes' without being fired. Ned's sometimes one-note tirades - against the apathy of a promiscuous gay culture - are countered by quieter moments; confessions of the fight for self worth, of hard won struggles, and losing friends and lovers.

If references to conspiracy theories, quarantining the sick and rubber-suited removal of infected bodies feel all too contemporary, this was a play written for a certain time and purpose.

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There is none of the liberated joy of recent TV series It's A Sin, or the lyrical imagination of Tony Kushner's later Angels In America, but Kushner's emotional restraint finally gives way to the pity of it all as Luke Norris' banker Bruce shatteringly recounts his lover's final hours, and Ned and Felix have a bittersweet union on a hospital bed.

4/5 stars.