The actor spoke to Love London Love Culture’s Emma Clarendon about his upcoming role in Lonely Planet playing at the Trafalgar Studios from the 12th June. 

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For those who aren’t familiar with Lonely Planet could you explain more about what the play is about? Lonely Planet is fantastically funny and sensitive play that tells the story of Jody and Carl, two gay men living during the AIDS epidemic in the 80’s in America. The play focuses on the friendship between Jody, a cautious and thoughtful map store owner, and Carl, a frequent visitor to the store with an unusually vivid imagination and multiple, ever-changing occupations. Carl notices that Jody is distancing himself from the outside world and tries to help him while also constantly bringing chairs into his shop. Lonely Planet deals with an individual’s struggle to come to terms with illness, friendship, their own mortality and the stigma associated with AIDS.

Could you tell me a bit more about your character?  Sure! Carl is a funny, enthusiastic, hectic, quirky, imaginative and endless ball of energy. He’s in his early 30’s and has known Jody, and has been coming to his store, for years. His friends are his family and he loves to visit Jody, either to learn something new about maps or just to listen to Jody’s dreams. As much as Carl is constantly on the front foot, he is also very sensitive and decides to deal with things by collecting chairs, working at multiple jobs and telling stories.

What were your first impressions of the play? What was it about the play that made you want to be involved with the production?  I can describe my first impression of the play with two words – Hilariously tender. When I first read the play I just couldn’t put it down and had this content smile spread all over my face. I just loved the funny yet sensitive relationship between Jody and Carl, and how in the midst of everything that was happening around them, with the AIDS epidemic, through their friendship they managed to overcome their fears. It was this special relationship that Jody and Carl build, plus Carl’s energy and point of view that made me want to be involved.

What would you say is the relevance of Lonely Planet in 2018?  I’d say there is still a strong social relevance of Lonely Planet in 2018. Since Brexit and Trump, we can see how prejudice and bigotry has been allowed to rear its ugly face back up again. I remember reading, very soon after Brexit had been voted for, there had been a steep rise in homophobic attacks against the LGBT community. This atmosphere, coupled with the declining public knowledge and awareness about HIV, makes Lonely Planet very relevant. Lonely Planet has the ability to allow the audience to relate and sympathise with the characters and, together with the Q&A’s planned during the run, help inform the public and raise their awareness and knowledge regarding AIDS and HIV.

 Also, as part of the production and the fight to end HIV infection, we are hoping to encourage people who haven’t tested themselves for HIV yet to do so. Thanks to our sponsors, Pasante and INSTI self-test kits, who donated 50 HIV self-test kits, we are able to give them away to anyone who feels that they would like to test themselves having seen the play and Q&A sessions.

Given the play’s topic – do you think there is still a problem with people’s attitudes towards AIDS?  Of course not as much as what it was like in the 80s and 90s, but there is definitely stigma still associated with HIV and AIDS and the public awareness and knowledge of HIV and AIDS is dropping in the UK. I can attest personally to my lack of awareness and knowledge of what AIDS really meant when I had just read the play. Having been born in 1988 and lived past the AIDS epidemic as a child, all I knew was that AIDS existed, and was now treatable. I really didn’t have a clear understanding as to what the difference between HIV and AIDS was, the impact and consequences of such a diagnosis, and the unbelievable affect and devastation it had on a whole community. I think most people my age would have the same lack of knowledge. A recent survey found that only 45% of the population could correctly identify all the ways in which HIV is and isn’t transmitted.

People who are HIV positive today are still very hesitant of telling others about their diagnosis. People have been shunned by family members, sexually rejected by partners and have even been discriminated against by healthcare workers (including doctors, dentists and hospital staff). This in turn can lead to people preferring not to test themselves or do so dangerously late – 12% of people living with HIV are undiagnosed and 42% of people diagnosed with HIV in 2016 were diagnosed at a late stage of HIV infection, which means if not treated could develop to AIDS.

How are the rehearsals for the production going?  So far so good! We have a new set designer, David Allen, which means we’ve had to readjust ourselves to a whole new set design and really couldn’t rely on muscle memory from last year’s production. Also the space itself in Traf 2 is a Thrust stage with the audience surrounding us on three sides, whereas the Tabard Theatre is a black box with the audience only on one side! So we’ve had to really think about how to organically keep everyone involved on all three sides, while not bumping into new furniture. It’s fun!

What would you say the main reason that people should come along and see the show is?  The main reason that people should come along and see the show… what a question… I think the main reason would be the heartfelt relationship between Jody and Carl. Steven Dietz’s writing is a joy to read and hear and I believe he’s really managed to balance the comedy and reality of the situation and their relationship really well. It gives an insight into what an individuals response might be to something so overwhelming as AIDS. Plus with the proximity of the audience and the amount of chairs brought on, it definitely will feel like you’re part of it.

By Emma Clarendon 

 Lonely Planet will play at the Trafalgar Studios from the 12th June until the 7th July. To book tickets visit: ATG Tickets