Caro Meets Theatre Interview

Bren Gosling: Moment Of Grace

By | Published on Friday 24 June 2022

Beginning a run at the Hope Theatre this week is ‘Moment Of Grace’, a play by Bren Gosling. It focuses on the AIDS crisis of the 1980s, and in particular the moment when Diana Princess Of Wales prompted the beginning of a change in attitudes towards those suffering from the virus, when she shook hands with an HIV positive patient.

It’s a fascinating sounding play, with an interesting structure, and one which promises to deal with some really important themes. To find out more about the production, and the creative behind it, I arranged a chat with the aforementioned playwright Bren Gosling ahead of opening night.

CM: Can you start by telling us about the content of the play? What story does it tell?
BG: ‘Moment Of Grace’ tells the story of the day Diana Princess Of Wales opened Britain’s first AIDS Unit, Broderip Ward at the old Middlesex Hospital in London.

On 9 Apr 1987, Diana went out of her way to be photographed shaking hands with a patient. She was not wearing gloves or PPE, which were unnecessary, but until then public perceptions of AIDS and HIV were misinformed, fuelled by media and press hysteria about ‘a gay plague’.

People with AIDS, especially gay men, were seen as pariahs, were cast out and often lost everything, including friends, family and employment.

What Diana did in one moment was to explode the myth that someone with HIV and AIDS is contagious, or infectious by just touching them or from ordinary close or social contact. Previously, even some hospital staff refused to go anywhere near someone with AIDS.

My play, structured as three interwoven monologues, shows how that momentous day unfolded, through the eyes of three characters: Jude, a young nurse; Andrew, a patient on the ward; and Donnie, a Chingford fireman estranged from his gay son. The characters are fictitious but representative of individuals who would have been impacted directly by Diana’s visit.

CM: What themes are explored through the play?
BG: Many. The AIDS pandemic pre-treatment threw up a lot of issues around prejudice, fear, hatred and homophobia.

Tabloid press, media and leadership figures – including, for example, the police, religious organisations and self-appointed guardians of public morality – spread misinformation and fear. This stirred up hostility against vulnerable fellow human beings and added to their suffering.

Sound familiar? FAKE NEWS, basically. The consequential impact on individual lives was nothing short of catastrophic. Families disowned their gay sons. Gay men with HIV and/or AIDS were thrown out of employment and housing. Anyone with AIDS was publicly ostracised, and gay men in particular were singled out for ridicule and hate.

Until after 1996, when successful antiretrovirals were introduced, an HIV diagnosis almost invariably meant certain death, and a horrible one within anything from up to two to five years.

The play also explores the ability of even those people with the most entrenched prejudices to change their views. More than anything, this play highlights the theme of hope in the face of extreme adversity.

AIDS also brought about a major shift in the way healthcare was delivered, towards a more holistic approach and a patient centred focus. This benefit to wider patient groups is often not acknowledged today.

The other key theme of the play is the importance of human touch, and compassion, when all else falls apart. This feels very resonant with what we’ve recently come through with COVID-19. More than ever, ‘Moment Of Grace’ is relevant to today, I believe. Please see it.

CM: The show is based on personal testimonies, isn’t it? Can you tell us about how those were collected and how you used them in the creation of the play?
BG: Yes. I interviewed two nurses – Leigh Chislett and Theresa Burns – both of whom worked on AIDS wards in the 1980s and early 90s.

Leigh, who set up 56 Dean St in Soho, London Europe’s biggest sexual health centre, was incredibly supportive of the play. He has made a film called ‘AIDS: Doctors And Nurses Tell Their Stories’, which I watched. It’s just so moving. I cried. All of us cried together.

I also interviewed Paul Coleman of the National HIV Story Trust, who is collecting an archive of filmed testimonies of people directly or indirectly affected by the AIDS pandemic in the UK.

Paul shared anonymously more stories and narratives from some of these recordings. He put me in touch with a gay man who was diagnosed early on and was one of the few who survived until effective treatment arrived; and who also met Diana, not on the day in question but, still, in an AIDS care setting, so this was helpful in forming a picture of her as a person. 

The other key person who helped enormously in my research was Dr Robert Miller, who is a Consultant Immunologist.

Rob was present as a junior doctor when Diana opened Broderip Ward and had that photo taken shaking hands with an AIDS patient. Rob really helped me understand the health service of the time, the physicality of the ward, its layout, how that day actually unfolded. 

I also used my own experiences as a young gay man living in London in the 1980s. At that time, I worked as a community occupational therapist in Wapping, East London. AIDS patients started to be referred. Because I was a gay man, I was allocated these cases. I found it heart breaking.

I remember one guy, who I visited in this fabulous warehouse apartment but never actually saw. He refused to be seen. He had Kaposi’s Sarcoma, disfiguring purple cancer lesions all over his body, and was basically wasting away. He always spoke to me hidden behind a screen, or through his partner and carer. He died.

There was another young gay male couple in a council flat. The guy was so handsome. He went blind. Got dementia. Died. He was about 24 years old. And I was invited by one man to his ‘last supper’. He had decided to stop all treatment, which wasn’t doing anything much except making him feel terrible because of the side effects. He knew this would hasten his demise.

Gosh. Those experiences are forever etched in my mind. I can see their faces to this day. All of them. So shocking. And I too was very young to witness all of that. This was a gay man’s reality at that time.

In addition, I went to the LGBTQ Archives at Bishopsgate Institute, to look at press coverage of Diana’s visit and tabloid headlines spouting AIDS hysteria from the time. It was shocking. Even I had forgotten just how outrageous and vitriolic that all was.

Of course, I also used the internet too. To watch again the TV AIDS Health Information Campaign ads from 1986 and 1987. To help me travel back in time. No social media. No smartphones! Great pop and club music.

CM: What inspired you to create a piece of theatre about this topic? What made you want to tell this story?
BG: The trigger came from the theme for Bloomsbury Festival in 2018. I needed to write a one act play for the John Burgess playwrighting group, which I was a part of at the time. The festival theme was ‘female activists and agents of change’. I immediately saw that image of Diana shaking hands with an AIDS patient. A light bulb moment.

I realised how significant the event was not only to the LGBTQ community but to wider, global society. I also realised the moment had largely been forgotten, or was largely unknown by many younger and current generation LGBTQ+ people. It’s such a pivotal moment in our recent history. I felt I had to write about it in a play. No one else had done it.

In my research, I uncovered an amazing story within the Diana story, about an HIV positive nurse, Shane Snape. This production of ‘Moment Of Grace’ is dedicated to his memory.

CM: Can you tell us a bit about the cast and crew?
BG: I’ve worked with the director Su Gilroy before. She was my original director for ‘Moment Of Grace’ when it premiered for two performances at the 2018 Bloomsbury Festival.

Su also directed another of my plays, ‘Invisible Me’, about three London singletons entering their seventh decade who overcome their social and sexual isolation. That was at New Wimbledon Studio last September.

She also directed for me on ‘I, Minnie Lansbury’, a commission at RADA Studio Theatre.

I admire her calm authority, her organisation skills, the patience, and kindness she brings to the rehearsal process.

Her vision for my work is usually to let the words speak for themselves by casting well and staging simply. I’ve not worked with any of the cast before, but it is so fantastic seeing them bring the show to life.

CM: As writer, how involved with the actual production are you? 
BG: I am more involved than perhaps I usually would be, since I’m also producing this time. I’ve been part of the auditioning process, which I love anyway. There is superb acting talent out there. We had 1200 submissions via Spotlight for the three roles. We looked at everyone. We did first round auditions on Zoom with 30 people, then face to face with fifteen.

CM: Can you tell us a bit about the panel discussion that will be taking place after one of the performances?
BG: Yes, this will be led by the aforementioned Paul Coleman of The National HIV Story Trust and last for approximately 45 minutes.

The Q&A panel will comprise myself, the cast, Dr Rob Miller – who was present at Diana’s visit to open Broderip ward 35 years ago – and Theresa Burns, an 80s AIDS nurse in London. Paul will lead a panel discussion about the play, then take audience questions.

CM: Can you tell us about you, now? What made you want to work in the arts and how did you begin your career?
BG: I had a completely different career before this one. As I mentioned, I trained as an occupational therapist and eventually set up a successful OT and physio private practice.

I started creative writing seriously on the tail end of five years of ill health. I had CFS/ME severely, which made me housebound, and made me reliant on others for my daily living needs and mobility. I had A LOT of time to reflect on life’s ‘bigger picture’.

I started out as a short story writer and only moved into play writing five years ago, in my late 50s! In 2017/8, I applied for and was fortunate to be offered a place on the coveted John Burgess Playwriting Course. My engagement and love of writing for the theatre began there.

I feel strongly there is huge scope for older writers to ‘emerge’ in the creative arts industries, although in the theatre world, one can get the impression that ‘emerging’ equates with being under 30. Us oldies have so much life experience to draw upon. I myself being a case in point. One can most definitely emerge as a playwright at an older age.

CM: What have been the highlights of your career thus far?
BG: So many things. The thrill of opening night. The wait in anticipation for press reviews. Audience reaction in a theatre. The utter joy of watching professional actors bring to life my words, characters and story. I’ve learned much about producing, auditioning and the rehearsal process. And the necessary give and take of working alongside a director.

Getting my first paid commission last year was a joy, especially as it sustained my creative focus through the hard, COVID winter of 20/21. That was ‘I, Minnie Lansbury’ at RADA Studio Theatre. I loved having to research a subject I knew nothing about – The Poplar Councillor’s Revolt. It gave me a thrill to later receive a thumbs up from Dame Angela Lansbury, who’d watched the film of our live stream of the play at her home in Los Angeles.

I was chuffed when I granted my first licence to another producer, and later when I granted a licence to another producer who interpreted my play ‘PROUD’ in a way I’d never thought of before, and who used a composer and choreographed movement.

Getting awards and industry accolades too are always satisfying. Ultimately and always the best thing is creating a new play from scratch and seeing it splutter into life. The first try out reads of a script with actors, the table read and getting a production staged are pure magic.

CM: What aims and ambitions do you have for the future?
BG: I’d like to form an ongoing relationship with a theatre. I’d like to write for a bigger stage. I want and will continue to write new plays that highlight marginalised narratives, and which bring more LGBTQ voices into mainstream drama without clichéd reliance on sexual identity as the main drivers of story.

CM: What’s coming up next for you after this?
BG: Currently, and at least until early autumn, I am working on the rewrite of my first novel ‘The Street Sweeper’, set in London in the aftermath of 9/11. It’s a love story.

A newly ‘out’ 40-year-old Jamaican British man of Pentecostal background, who has a fifteen-year-old son, falls for a 21-year-old Kosovan refugee with PTSD who doesn’t identify as gay. The book in draft won the 2021 Novel London Literary Prize.

After that, I would like to start on a new play, perhaps for a big stage. Well, we’ll see! And I am hoping to get another of my plays, the aforementioned ‘I, Minnie Lansbury’ about the women of the Poplar Rates Revolt of 1921, a proper run in 2023.

‘Moment Of Grace’ is on at the Hope Theatre from 28 Jun-16 Jul. See the venue website here for more information and to book tickets.  

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Photo: Edward Baxter