Here is some news for you: people are messy and full of contradictions. When they become sick they don't suddenly turn into pitiable martyrs. The life of a young New York poet gets turned upside down when he contracts HIV and splits up with his partner. Rich (Tom Colley) is angry about what's happening to him, his community and his body. His mood swings and rage make him a rather unsympathetic character. It's an energetic performance by Colley, who has great chemistry with the nuanced David Poyner playing his overbearingly supportive ex Saul. The squabbling, the promiscuity, the self-centeredness or devotion of the characters – in its examination of personal relationships, reaction of family, friends and co-workers, As Is is truthful and touching. 

Set in and around the AIDS hospice St Vincent's in Greenwich Village, the play exposes the very real struggles of that time. Around 1985, when the play originally premiered, the death toll shook the tightly knit gay community of New York. It was the nightmarish crash of a subculture that only a few years before had soared to its own liberation. The play presents these wild days in a stylised fashion with ecstatic cocaine-fuelled crescendoes, leather clones and surreal Greek choir-like scene overlaps. There are a few slightly risqué and outrageous bits, but those are never to merely shock but to create a fast-paced, heaving and sweaty melancholia for a time gone by. 

Counterbalanced with quiet revelations in life support meetings or on phone help lines, there are just so many facets to this production, from the very poignant to the tragically funny. And that's what people do in the face of death: they laugh, deny, get angry, make up and screw up.

It's a wonderful achievement from the cast, who stay on stage most of the time, and their costume changes happen on stage for the audience to see. Phil Lindley's design, full of great details, with a big dominating arch, gym lockers, hints of scaffolding structures and sleazy, grimy undertones, provides them with a space that is very much of the era and serves as a bar, a club or hospital room.

Claire Kissane's fervent hospice worker shows that even when you yourself are not affected by hardship, you can still feel connected to those who are and play your part to in helping to overcome public indifference. Paul Standell and Anna Tiernay deliver strong performances as the multiple characters that make up the community. It's Jordan Bernarde, however, who manages to give real punch to his characters, all of which are authentic and distinct in their very own way. 

As Is is not only an artefact of its time vibrantly brought to life through Andrew Keates' direction; it is also an alarming reminder that the sidelining of an entire part of society can happen when there is no compassion or urge to understand and solidarise. Maybe a clearer hint towards more recent LGBT issues wouldn't have gone amiss, but it's definitely a production that works in its own right. It should be seen by everyone, not just people who are interested in gay rights and history.

As Is, at Finborough TheatreAnnegret Maerten reviews As Is at the Finborough Theatre.4