Tell Me How It Ends review – 80s-set HIV drama offers a blast of polemical power

<span>Facing the unknown … Emmy Stonelake as Aster and Luke Sookdeo as Marc in Tell Me How It Ends.</span><span>Photograph: Andrew AB Photography</span>
Facing the unknown … Emmy Stonelake as Aster and Luke Sookdeo as Marc in Tell Me How It Ends.Photograph: Andrew AB Photography

It is the end of the 1980s and Aster is doing her bit by befriending Liverpool HIV patients. She is well-meaning and resilient but has one flaw: she has a compulsive way of spoiling the plot. In Tasha Dowd’s play, whenever Aster recommends a book, she always lets slip the twist on the final page.

What starts as a quirky character trait grows into a metaphor. There will come a point when the medication of Marc, the man to whom she becomes closest, will cease to keep him alive. At that moment, he will need to cut short his life story and skip to the end.

All of which seems like justification to give away the ending of Tell Me How It Ends. Because it is the best bit.

It is a speech, ferociously delivered by Emmy Stonelake as Aster, about the importance of protest and the value of being heard – noisily and abrasively if necessary. It is a broadside in favour of public services and trans rights, for civic spirit in the face of reactionary governments, and for staying vigilant even after battles have been won.

A blast of polemical power, this closing speech eclipses the soap opera of the preceding play, and hints at what Dowd might write next. At only 22, the winner of the 2023 Homotopia writers’ award has time to find a way to marry their political passion with dramatic action.

In this context, it is interesting to look back to the plays that came in the wake of the Aids crisis: they were charged with anger but, with an illness that took the lives of so many young men, it often felt like anger directed at death itself.

Whereas, writing about events that happened decades before they were born, Dowd (who uses they) views the loss of life not as a raw wound but as part of a process. They know medication would improve and knowledge would increase, even as they can empathise with the terror felt by a character such as Luke Sookdeo’s shell-shocked Marc, isolated as he faces the unknown.

Directed by Gitika Buttoo, Tell Me How It Ends is a sweet and sentimental testament to solidarity, limited in scale but big in heart.

• At Everyman, Liverpool, until 22 June