Review by Daz Gale
New Wimbledon Theatre is used to hosting touring productions of some of the biggest musicals in the world. From Waitress, We Will Rock You and, starting tonight, Blood Brothers. However, if you veer to the left of the main theatre, you will find a small studio place that is currently playing host to something that is a far cry from the main stage next door - a new production of The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me.
Written by David Drake who also starred in the show when it debuted in 1992, The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me is a one-man play about self-discovery and the trials and tribulations of being a gay man. Named after the playwright and activist responsible for bringing us The Normal Heart (recently revived in an excellent production at National Theatre), the one act piece divides itself into nine separate sections that jumps through different moments and settings in our protagonists life.
The nameless character, known simply as "performer" is played by John Bell. Best known for his role in the series Outlander, he makes his stage debut in an accomplished performance. With nobody else on stage to interact with (though he does enjoy a nice bit of eye contact with the front row), Bell is utterly captivating portraying the performer we get to know at various stages of his life taking the audience on a journey with him as he discovers the importance and beauty of his own existence. Displaying a varied mix of vulnerability, confidence and insecurity, the one constant is how mesmerising Bell is, delivering a true masterclass performance.
The small space of the Studio in Wimbledon is transformed into a beautiful versatile setting with the clever use of lighting and one solitary trunk full of a world of possibilities. No bells and whistles are required her when we have one Bell capable of taking us into his world, thanks to the expert direction by Steven Dexter and gorgeous design from David Shields.
The nine vignettes that make up the play change the tone completely. Starting with a more conventional narration of the performers live, littered with references to West Side Story, 42nd Street and A Chorus Line, it ensures the show opens with a love letter to theatre which continues to be cleverly referenced throughout the remainder of the show. Other vignettes feel less conventional with a section "Why I go to the gym" being as far away from the opening narrative as possible. The way The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me jumps from one extreme to the other with a frantic and relentless abandon creates an urgent feel that acts as a metaphor to the silent killer ticking away in the background.
The theme of AIDS is touched upon throughout the play, but gets its own heart wrenching section towards the close. As well as being beautiful visually "A thousand points of light" stirs something up within you as a moving tribute to all those who were lost. Similar to a moment in 2021's Cruise, watching the sheer magnitude of so much loss through the eyes of one person is a sensitive and raw way to demonstrate such an important part of history.
With themes about homophobia and self acceptance, The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me isn't always an easy watch. If these subjects are difficult and at times too close to home, they are important and necessary - even decades later. With a witty, fast-paced script, there are also moments of light relief - with, dare I say, the best use of the Village People ever seen on a stage?
The kiss mentioned in the title is both metaphorical and literal. John Bell's performer is kissed by the show itself when he watches Larry Kramer's The Normal Heart and finds himself changed because of what he has seen. A beautiful metaphor of the power of theatre and what can be achieved by a good play. Beautifully written, wonderfully portrayed and mesmerising to watch, this is every bit as powerful as the play the title references. I had a similar feeling watching this and will never forget the night this play kissed me.
The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me plays at the Studio at New Wimbledon Theatre until February 26th. Tickets from https://www.atgtickets.com/shows/the-night-larry-kramer-kissed-me/studio-at-new-wimbledon-theatre/
Photos by Mark Senior