On both the eve of Pride, and what would have been the 61st birthday of Diana Princess of Wales, there felt no more appropriate place to be last night than at The Hope Theatre watching Bren Gosling’s Moment of Grace. Inspired by the moment in April 1987 when the princess opened Britain’s first HIV/AIDS unit at London’s Middlesex Hospital and challenged public perceptions of the disease by shaking hands with patients, the play draws on a number of voices to paint a powerful picture of that day and its far-reaching impact.
Jude (Narisha Lawson) is a nurse working on the unit. She’s proud of her job and radiates love and compassion for her patients – but she’s scared of what others might think if they find out where she works. Andrew (James Taylor-Thomas) is one of Jude’s patients, still struggling to come to terms with his diagnosis, how it happened, and what it means. And Donnie (Richard Costello) is a firefighter and proud “man’s man” who encapsulates all the ignorant attitudes the royal visit is about to challenge. Each character speaks directly to the audience in their turn, never interacting with each other even as their lives intersect in both expected and unexpected ways. Through their words we learn of the excitement and apprehension surrounding the royal visit, and the public’s media-fuelled fear of AIDS and the risks it posed.
Gosling’s writing is extraordinary, gently reminding (for those who remember) and educating (for those who don’t) without ever feeling overly didactic. With a set that’s bare aside from three stools and a hospital curtain, Gosling’s words conjure up a vivid picture of the royal visit, but more importantly the stories of people affected by the pandemic, both directly and indirectly. Andrew’s frank descriptions of his symptoms, Donnie’s homophobic attitudes, and Jude’s heartbreaking stories of the patients she’s lost are difficult to hear, but there’s much more to these people than HIV and AIDS, and Gosling’s script is also infused with warmth and humour alongside the anger and pain. All three actors effortlessly embody their characters, who are complex, relatable and three-dimensional; even Donnie, whose views are utterly abhorrent, avoids becoming a total stereotype through moments of vulnerability and the faintest hope of redemption as the play concludes. We don’t need to see Diana to clearly visualise her compassion and courage – just as we don’t need to see Ed, a fourth character inspired by a real person, Shane Snape, who we never meet but who ultimately becomes just as integral to the story as the unit’s famous visitor.
As the play concludes, with the three characters watching the events of the day on the evening news, their stories are left unfinished. We have no idea how Jude’s flatmates will react to seeing her on TV, how Donnie will respond to what he’s learnt from the report, or how much more time Andrew has. But it’s clear, just as I imagine it was for everyone watching on that day in 1987, that something momentous has happened, and Gosling captures perfectly that note of cautious optimism. It’s a heartbreaking story to have to tell, but told beautifully.
Moment of Grace is at The Hope Theatre until 16th July.