The Night That Larry Kramer Kissed Me

Review: The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me

Review: The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me

Jenny Booth reviews: “For 75 minutes he commands rapt and unbroken attention with a mercurial performance of innate good timing.”


It is a gutsy move for an established film and television actor to make their theatre debut in a one-man play about the HIV epidemic – doubly so when the venue is a small studio theatre miles outside the West End. But John Bell (The Hobbit, Outlander) turns the intimate setting to his advantage with a fluent, compelling and nuanced performance as the protagonist in The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me. Bell’s powers as a small screen actor have translated well to the cosy setting of New Wimbledon Theatre Studio, where the audience is inches away and can see every fleeting facial expression and every subtle movement of the body. For 75 minutes he commands rapt and unbroken attention with a mercurial performance of innate good timing, switching seamlessly from humour to pathos, from youthful exuberance to fear, from optimism to anger, from crudeness to soulful sincerity, from wonder to bitterness. 

David Drake’s drama was a smash hit off-Broadway in 1993, just a few years after the events it describes. Other plays and films have retold the harrowing story of the AIDS era with more epic sweep or more hard-hitting realism: the fear, the anti-gay discrimination and violence, the awful nature of the disease, and its rapid and cruel progress through the gay community, taking some and sparing others in a terrifyingly brutal and random way. By comparison, Larry Kramer is a personal story that begins quite sweetly and simply with a prelapsarian innocence, and gives flashbacks of that child-like quality at intervals through the play; this offers an increasingly stark contrast with the protagonist’s experiences coming of age as a gay man in New York in a period of gathering horror. The lyrical quality of the writing comes across strongly at the most emotionally charged moments; at times Bell appears to be performing poetry, with the script’s insistent use of rhetorical devices like repetition and rhyme. 

The production is consistently professional. The show relies heavily on sound and lighting effects to conjure up different scenes or to create different emotional atmospheres, and every cue appeared to be hit with split-second accuracy, instantly transforming David Shields’s impressionistic set – little more than a metal trunk, a microphone and stand, and a raised platform – into a city street, a nightclub or a hospital ward.  Under Steven Dexter’s direction, the show builds and builds in power towards the final extended sequence where the protagonist remembers his dead loved ones, with the incantatory refrain ‘Where did you go?’ It is a compelling but not depressing look at a period that has a few parallels with our own times but whose social attitudes are thankfully now out of the mainstream. 

The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me runs at the Studio at New Wimbledon Theatre until 26 February.


Image credit: Mark Senior