In Our Blood review: sweet ABC musical show needed a bit more oomph

In championing the queer community’s response to the HIV/AIDS crisis, this was surely worthy of a bigger budget.

Any LGBTIQA+ person has experienced that moment: a straight colleague tripping over a homophobic faux pas, requiring a spicy skewering with eyebrow firmly raised. In Our Blood, ABC’s Sydney World Pride-adjacent musical drama series about the HIV/AIDS crisis response in Australia, wastes no time serving up such a delicious dish.

Star of stage and screen Tim Draxl (The Newsreader) plays David, a buttoned-up Canberra wonk assisting Rake star Matt Day’s fictional health minister Jeremy Wilding. They’re serving in the real (but otherwise unseen, beyond a few snippets of archival reel) Hawke government swept to power in 1983. ‘I feel a change is coming,’ says a drag queen played by Art Simone, adding with a mischievous wink: ‘No, not that, I’m keeping it.’

Read: In Our Blood, it still runs

Back in Canberra, David can’t help himself from speaking out on his first day while sitting in on a tediously long briefing during which the ominous term ‘GRID’ crops up. Back in the 80s, it stood for the unfairly stigmatising early label ‘Gay Related Immune Deficiency’, which in turn provoked the hateful slur ‘Gay plague’.

David, a workaholic, has been voraciously reading news reports about this worrying phenomenon in the US and asks the civil servant to explain what it means and if there’s a real risk of it reaching our shores. Asked what could be behind it, she stumbles over her words, clearly flustered, suggesting that it seems to be connected to men who ‘indulge in …’

Unable to finish her sentence, David archly suggests, ‘Badminton?’ She continues: ‘anal sex with multiple partners,’ before swiftly moving on to ‘rickets in rural NSW’.

It’s a gloriously awkward moment that’s at once sassy and portentous.

Shout, shout, let it all out

The horrors of the HIV/AIDS crisis have been explored extensively in documentary and dramatic series. And yet, the collective community action that pushed the government to take notice – particularly in Australia, where the response was much swifter and far less stigmatising than in Thatcher’s UK or Reagan’s US – never seems to lose its power.

But there is still a risk, when re-treading a terrifying chapter of deadly history bitterly familiar to so many survivors and allies, of offering nothing new. Kudos, then, to the ABC and production company Hoodlum Entertainment (Five Bedrooms, All My Friends Are Racist) for trying something different.

While musical theatre has a rich queer history, we haven’t seen that step onto screens big and small quite as much. So the idea of introducing a Greek chorus of gender-queer glitterati that flit into the story to spill the tea on significant movements in government policy, public sentiment and activist advances is a finger-snapping good one. These musical interludes mainline 80s gold like Belinda Carlisle, Bronski Beat and Tears for Fears.

Spinning out of dearly departed Oxford Street nightclub Patchs – shot at Brisbane’s Sportsman Hotel – and into scenes set at Parliament House, St Vincent’s dedicated HIV/AIDS ward and cross-community activist meetings that also bring in sex workers and intravenous drug users, it’s a fun framing mechanism.

But they’re not quite as wow as they could be. They really needed star power like Kate Miller-Heidke’s mic-drop cameo in Nakkiah Lui show Preppers. Instead, In Our Blood makes do with co-writer Adriano Cappelletta alongside Nic Prior, Alice Birbarra and Tomas Parrish. They do a fine job, but these sequences needed stronger vocals, way more dancers and snappier choreography.

Draxl, no stranger to musical theatre, having recently graduated from the Australian tour of Jagged Little Pill with Natalie Bassingthwaighte, doesn’t get to assist these breakouts as much as he should. He’s great in the role of tireless good guy trying to make a difference in the halls of power. His dedication comes at significant personal cost, with his Colombian boyfriend Gabe (charismatic Bump star Oscar Leal, sparkling) left alone at home all week long and beginning to look elsewhere at a time when no one knew exactly what was going on.

Grim Reaper

Some folks were terrified of sex, thanks to heavy-handed moralising on TV, radio, in the papers and on the streets. The infamous Grim Reaper ad campaign makes an appearance, with one character noting, ‘it’s a fricking horror movie’.

Of course, others pushed back hard, insisting that it was better to educate men in the sex-on-premises venues in which they sought solace, refusing to be castigated for seeking connection when so many were being made homeless by employers or their families casting them out.

David is not left to champion sex-positive pamphlets to his open-minded boss alone. The rallying role of lesbians is centred via Mystery Road star and Larrakia, Yanuwa, Bardi and Wardaman woman Jada Alberts, looking nifty in leather, and Anna McGahan’s curly-haired teacher. Their apartment-turned-call centre is adorned with Virginia Woolf and Yvonne Goolagong posters, and the latter has a lovely moment with a questioning student. Elsewhere, Nicholas Brown is impressive as a doctor trying to dole out advice where he can while flying blind in the early days of the crisis, losing lovers and secretly scared he too could be exposed.

Day’s accepting straight man role is a televisual hug in a show that does not ignore, but chooses not to foreground homophobia. A powerful scene where the cops, who refuse to engage with a protest aimed at decriminalising homosexual acts, later storm Patchs to beat up the punters is a notable exception. It’s good not to dwell on queer trauma, but the show prob needed to pull fewer punches.

It’s like a story of love

There’s a lot going on In Our Blood. Perhaps the show could have done with a slightly tighter narrative focus from Cappelletta and co-writers Jane Allen and Jonathan Gavin, accommodating fewer subplots and side characters. Why Are You Like This star Wil Young’s angelic stray barman Liam never really gets a chance to take wing. Black Comedy genius Steven Oliver and Ryan A Murphy’s bearded nun Tim are a bit lost as proud protesters.

With all these moving parts and more, directors John Sheedy (H is for Happiness) and Nicholas Verso (Boys in the Trees) can’t quite bring home the emotional heft of Neil Armfield’s seminal Holding the Man adaptation, or deliver history as deftly as Zoë Coombs Marr’s glowing docuseries Queerstralia. While the chorus is fun, if a little lacking in oomph beyond a standout rendition of ‘Heaven Is a Place on Earth’ in the final of four episodes, their musical numbers, and the occasional info dump from Draxl, can also feel a wee bit too school lecture-y.

With its heart in the right place, as with the ABC’s similarly themed Mardi Gras origin story Riot (a big screen musical on this topic is coming soon in the shape of Bronte Pictures’ 1978), you can’t help but feel like a little more budget would have gone a very long way. Goodness knows these heroes deserve it.

In Our Blood is currently streaming on ABC iview.