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Beirut review at Park Theatre, London – ‘claustrophobic Aids crisis allegory’

Louisa Connolly-Burnham and Robert Rees in Beirut at Park Theatre, London. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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Despite its title, Alan Bowne’s 1987 one-act play Beirut is set in a dystopian future America ravaged by a plague.

New York City’s Lower East Side is now a quarantine area known as ‘Beirut’, where those found positive like Torch are ghettoised. When his girlfriend Blue breaks through to join him she wants to fulfil their relationship by having sex but he does not want to risk infecting her.

Although the lethal sexually transmitted disease is nameless, it is clearly inspired by the 1980s Aids epidemic, which killed Bowne himself two years after the play’s Off-Broadway premiere. Unlike almost every other drama with a similar background Beirut has a heterosexual partnership at its centre – it is not a ‘gay play’ – but it does raise the issue of how a ‘transgressive’ minority are shunned and scapegoated.

This is an authoritarian surveillance society where there is a crackdown on illicit couplings with ‘sex detectors’, while victims have a ‘p’ tattooed on their buttocks and undergo forced examination by lesion squads.

Bowne’s intentions may be allegorical but Beirut seems wrapped up in the hysteria of the time in which it was written. There is also a problem with the way the play sometimes seems to conflate sex and love.

Robert Rees and Louisa Connolly-Burnham, often stripped to their underwear or even naked, convey their characters’ intensely frustrated sexual desire as they grapple and caress, within a dingy, graffiti-daubed basement room bathed in garish red light (designed by Liz Ascroft). The intimate Park 90 studio is well suited to Robin Lefevre’s claustrophobic production, which cannot quite bring the play alive to a contemporary audience.

 

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Verdict
1980s American play inspired by the Aids crisis that fails to transcend its origins
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