THEATRE / Damp spots among the purple patches: Paul Taylor on Elegies for Angels, Punks and Raging Queens at the Criterion Theatre

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FOR JOE, who died of Aids, the afterlife has its little irritations. He'd left specific instructions that his panel in the Aids patchwork quilt was to be 'absolutely fabulous' - a depiction of Rock Hudson, for instance - but what have they gone and given him? A beach towel and a teddy bear, like so many others. It's no fun, he claims, to die and then suffer an eternity of 'panel-envy'. How, though, do we know that these are Joe's feelings? Indeed, how do we know there's still a Joe to have any feelings of any kind? Because, along with 30-odd other folk who have died from Aids, he pops up to have a posthumous chat with us in the Bill Russell / Janet Hood musical Elegies for Angels, Punks and Raging Queens.

By no means all the people featured in these rhymed-verse vignettes used their brief exeat from the Beyond to curry favour or offer uplift. An unrepentant hunk in a bath towel tells how, when he learned he'd got the virus, he deliberately 'stuck the dagger' of sex into numerous other men. There's an abused woman who would gladly, she reports, have given the virus to some of the men of her acquaintance. Instead, she bequeathed it to her baby son: 'What kind of man would he have been?' she wonders bleakly. With a roll-call of revenants that includes an Aids child whom no one would adopt, a New York junkie, a caring nurse accidentally infected, etc, Elegies shows that 'the virus isn't picky about where it wants to go' and admits the possibility that 'If you're a shite and you die of Aids, it doesn't stop you being a shite', to quote an interview comment by one of the performers, Simon Fanshawe.

Why then is the overwhelming impression one of sanitisation and sentimentality? Partly, it's the glitter-hurling Broadway campiness of much of the show's defiance. The director of London Lighthouse said in an interview in yesterday's Independent that some people are paradoxically glad to have Aids, since it teaches them the value of life and time. But in this show, such enhanced appreciation takes some pretty unreflective forms. 'If this was my swansong, I was going to play it for all it was worth,' recalls the 'slightly used diva' Regina Fong, proceeding to wow us with 'Why not go out with a bang?' (a title which contains, in the circumstances, an unfortunate pun).

Or there's Race Davies's miraculously peppy, boa-wearing broad who, in 'Spend It While You Can', does the splits, gets laden with goodies and throws money away in a delirious, virus-schmirus spending binge. With the last breath in his lungs, yet another character sings those old Broadway hits to drown out the death-bed prayers of his fundamentalist family. Is it possible to expire on anything less than a showstopper?

There are moments of due indignation at the Reagan / Bush record on Aids. The celebration of carers and the calls for more tend to grate, however, thanks to the gloopy, 'We Are the World'-like form they take: 'We all can be heroes / By giving a hand . . .' But why would we have to fool ourselves we were being heroic first? And wouldn't true heroes refuse to be so described? Kim Criswell and Kwame Kwei-armah are in beautiful voice, but apart from the lovely elegiac title number, the songs are reach- me-down affairs and the rhymed speech doesn't help in giving characters the dignity of distinct voices.

During the first half, my guilt at not liking the show was made worse by the sobs and snuffles coming from a young man in the next row. It was a relief to discover, at the interval, his problem wasn't grief but hay fever.

Booking: 071-839 4488.