Honest, moving, and well-crafted play that’s painfully relevant. Precisely what an educational piece of theatre should be in 2022.
Welcome to the MAN’s bedroom
The tiny space of “The Lion and Unicorn” welcomes me with a mess. It’s a typical bedroom mess, with clothes, meds, and notes scattered on the floor. And there’s also a bed (of course). Sat on the bed, the MAN (Sam Buss) sits and looks down quietly. He’s a man with a story, and the moment the show starts, he begins his monologue, and gosh, the story kept me intrigued until the very end.
The MAN is a fan of metaphors, the main one being a box of puzzle pieces, in which each puzzle is one factor affecting the gay relationship. He will tell you about how he met a man, started dating, and suddenly found himself in a relationship with an HIV-positive person. And all this, while comparing getting to know each other to study a Pizza Express menu – unusual, but somehow it does prove a point.
The awkwardness of first meetings and the standard first conversations – no matter if you’re straight or gay- are written in such a relatable way that you’ll immediately feel the connection with the main character. It’s a clever way to make the audience like and relate to the play’s hero right before the big “talk” that we all expect happens.
Moving portrayal of the “difficult 3-letter talk”
The central part of the play is no surprise, as it’s strongly hinted at in the title. It’s a mix of comedy and educational presentation, with Buss playing the roles of Sex-ed Teacher* and Doctor. Through posters and presentations, the MAN learns more about the Pr-EP (a medicine that reduces your chances of getting HIV from sex or injection drug use) and the weirdly illogical blood donation rules by gay men in the UK. That’s when the play dives deeper into the imperfect way gay men are still treated by the NHS and some of the rules of law.
The show is a monologue, but I was glad to see a well-choreographed movement during the play and minimalistic yet on-point light design, which kept the pace of the play relatively quick. “Focus on the Positives” gains additional speed as little surprises are uncovered: the stage setup (a bed) rotates but also has some hidden compartments and pieces that Buss cleverly uses as the story continues. It allows the actor to turn a bedroom into a club or a doctor’s room. Very clever!
Let’s talk about reality
The last 5 minutes of the play gave me exactly what I wanted to get from it: a raw, no-nonsense summary of living with someone who’s HIV positive. A resume that’s not a stereotypical “it’s going to be ok” but also not the “oh, this is such a brave thing.” The ending is a perfectly rounded, honest life sharing, which you could hear from a friend, and oozes authenticity.
Can we please get more people like Sam Buss in fringe theatre? With his delicate-yet-amusing stage presence, he creates a very intimate experience for the audience. The monologue feels a bit like when you’re at a house party; it’s almost morning, and everyone is asleep on the floor. But you are immersed in a conversation with this intriguing person you’ve just met, and he’s telling you his life story.
It’s a play for gay men – but also for anyone who considers themselves an ally and wants to know how to talk with their friends about HIV. If you’re looking for a thought-provoking play, you will definitely get it here.
*Fun fact from my life – in Poland, sex-ed classes at public schools are often conducted by priests or religious education teachers, which I find ridiculously funny. But also really sad. You can imagine the quality of these classes…
PR invite – I attended the show on invitation from the Production Company. All opinions are my own.
Written by: Sam Buss
Directed by: Gemma Draper
Produced by: Baggage Claim Theatre
Focus on the Positives plays at Lion and Unicorn Theatre until July 30 2022. Further information and bookings can be found here.
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