No, Lonely Planet thankfully isn't some cheesy dramatisation of a popular travel guide series. This enjoyable if heart-wrenching UK première of Steven Dietz's powerful 1993 AIDS lament is a welcome tie-in with London's Pride festival. Although everyone this year is rightly celebrating 50 years since homosexuality was legalised in Britain, Dietz's intimate play is a sobering reminder of the tragedy which the mainstream media not so long ago charmingly called the 'gay plague'. It is an interesting if very different counterpoint to Tony Kushner's epic Angels in America, written in the same early 90s period and currently enjoying its long sold-out revival at the National Theatre.
Unlike Kushner's vast masterpiece, this humble staging above the Tabard pub in Chiswick only has two characters and is set entirely in a tiny old map / junk shop called Jody's Maps in an unnamed American city. Designer Nik Corrall's appealingly bric-a-brac set could be the pub's own long-abandoned, dusty attic, hidden away in this gorgeously leafy, old-fashioned part of West London. Alexander McMorran sensitively plays Jody, the owner, who exists among rolled-up, antique maps, a vintage cash till, a water cooler and countless stacked-up second-hand chairs. Brooding and bearded, he's let himself go a bit and is afraid to leave his shop. His annoyingly manic friend Carl constantly visits him, bringing a new old chair each time - energetically portrayed by Aaron Vodovoz and his bouncy, shoulder-length black perm.
Surreal comedy in the first half gives way to the devastatingly serious clarity of the AIDS theme. McMorran and Vodovoz shift their performances up several gears as the audience starts to comprehend the mystery of the chairs and their characters' bizarre tomfoolery. The beguiling running joke of Carl's numerous jobs - tabloid hack, university lecturer, bartender, to name a few - also becomes crystal clear by the play's end.
Ian Brown's pacy direction keeps the action rollicking along - no small feat for a play with so few characters in such a claustrophobic shop space. But momentum also slows down poignantly with silences and calm physical gestures when the drama requires it. Most memorably, a momentous telephone call scene brilliantly puts the show on hold to max out the dramatic tension.
"You're a nut-head, Carl," exclaims McMorran's Jody at one boiling-point, with a well-acted mix of frustration, displeasure, affection and possibly love. "At least I'm not a map geek," Vodovoz replies, his motor-mouth, Walter Mitty-esque character well on his way to becoming someone altogether franker, more sincere and oddly loveable. The intriguing nature of their friendship is one of Lonely Planet's high points. And the play's central cartographical metaphor - the difficulty of navigating a complex and painful world, even with maps galore - applies as much to the absorbing dynamic between the two men as it does to the AIDS crisis itself.