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Review: Tell me How it Ends at Liverpool Everyman ****

When the full, deadly and terrifying reality of HIV and AIDS started to become widely known during the 1980s, many lesbians stepped up in solidarity to help those battling the virus.

These compassionate women offered both emotional and practical support (sometimes the only support some gay men abandoned by family and friends received), from hospital visits, counselling and physical care to activism, advocacy and even holding blood drives, leading to them being called Blood Sisters.

It’s an important thread amid the wider story of the impact of HIV/AIDS, one which was explored on screen in Russell T Davies’s 2021 drama It’s a Sin in the story of Lydia West’s character Jill.

And it’s one which is also at the heart of Tell Me How it Ends, playwright Tasha Dowd’s thoughtful and perhaps unexpectedly – given the subject matter – uplifting new drama receiving its premiere at the Liverpool Everyman as part of the theatre’s 60th anniversary year.

Dowd, a graduate of the Young Everyman Playhouse Writers Programme, won the 2023 Homotopia Writers’ Award with the two-hander, receiving seed funding and a rehearsed reading to help develop the script.

It’s Liverpool in 1987 and Marc (Luke Sookdeo) is suffering a protracted stay in hospital while doctors work out how to control the HIV attacking his body, along with regular visits from the irrepressible Aster (Emmy Stonelake) who has dedicated herself to caring for gay men affected by the virus in a hostile world where there is no cure.

Above: Luke Sookdeo as Marc. Top: With Emmy Stonelake as Aster. Photos by Andrew AB Photography.

The more a mute and defensive Marc shrinks from her, the ruder and more derogatory he is towards her, the more Stonelake’s deliberately positive and cheerfully loud Aster persists.

There’s pleasure to be had from watching Sookdeo and Stonelake’s duo shift from antipathy to friendship and, essentially, a close co-dependency. One which (in Irvine Welsh’s words) makes a conscious decision to ‘choose life’.

While the subject matter is dark, Dowd’s script is also often vital and funny – she has a keen ear for a sly one-liner.

It’s also neatly structured, and that is echoed in Katie Scott’s multi-levelled set design with the action flowing in a circular motion between hospital room, flat and dancefloor – but with the eye naturally drawn back to the bleak hospital bed which overlooks (and overshadows) the rest.

Inevitably, all roads lead back towards it, and Dowd effects a powerful and emotionally resonant final scene between Marc and Aster, beautifully played by the actors, and which elicited some stifled sniffing around me from an audience entirely engaged in the moment.

It’s an ending with quiet impact – one which doesn't need or benefit from an impassioned epilogue/monologue which ultimately descends into something perilously close to a rant.


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