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14th February 2023

Review: Live To Tell: (A Proposal For) The Madonna Jukebox Musical

Live to Tell is a meta, satirical but deeply personal account of HIV, with the Queen of Pop used as a representation of transformation
Review: Live To Tell: (A Proposal For) The Madonna Jukebox Musical
Photo: Harry Elletson

Brian Mullin’s semi-autobiographical play, directed by Deidre McLaughlin, dives into the bittersweet battle of HIV survival. Exposing the psyche of a gay man wracked with guilt and frustration, this honest production sheds light on the aftermath of the antidote.

Surprisingly, Live To Tell: (A Proposal For) The Madonna Jukebox Musical, is not actually a play about Madonna. Mullin, himself, admits to not really being a fan of hers. Asides from a few references to her top hits, Madonna scarcely appears. Instead, appears a surface level obsession which prompts the protagonist into a downward spiral.

Brian deflects his desire for reinvention into a play idea, and who better to pitch to than the Queen of Pop herself? Her decades long reign and transformation ability fascinates Brian, somebody stuck in a loop with no certain way of getting out. This frustration is felt throughout. Brian’s manic pitches are never fully completed, and perhaps not intended to be. He finds himself in a dissociative state, distracted by medical appointments, empty hook-ups, relapses, and missed meetings.

Mullin is joined on stage by Dan de la Motte, playing “Everyone Else”. The actor morphs into multiple people within seconds of each other, seamlessly transitioning into five different people, all only distinguishable through his convincing performance. This creative choice was an important addition to the play, accentuating Brian’s ‘barely there’ mental state and inability to focus on anything but his Madonna pitch.

All characters reiterate a certain pet peeve of Brian’s, referring to him as “Brain”. The misspelling has haunted Brian for years, much like his HIV diagnosis. Something that will never go away. This repetitive technique is used throughout the show, Brian’s regular hook-up repeatedly telling him to relax and Brian’s doctor asking him if he’s changed medications. As summarised by Madonna in ‘Sorry’, he’s truly “heard it all before”. It creates a more honest point, that nobody can get Brian out of this shame spiral but himself.

The show, performed at Clapham’s Omnibus black-box theatre, made use of an empty set. Instead, focusing on interactions between characters and using audio-visual techniques. These methods further pushed the audience into Brian’s brain, offering a deeper insight than dialogue alone. These digital projections were also used as comic relief, which were at times tedious but overall appreciated.

The resolution was not satisfyingly cathartic, the scene between Brian and his boyfriend became a rushed summary for what could not be weaved into the play. Despite this, some important topics were discussed, namely how Coronavirus had triggered a muscle memory for Brian fighting HIV.
The production was extremely self-aware, which accentuated the ‘meta’ delivery but often undermined its satirical elements. The show shied away from bigger issues, such as Big Pharma, PrEP side-effects, and the overall effects of the AIDS crisis. However, what was delivered is a deeply personal account of HIV which will hopefully inspire audience members to research further.


Live To Tell: (A Proposal For) The Madonna Jukebox Musical runs at Omnibus Clapham until February 18.

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