Holding the Man

Adapted by Tommy Murphy from the book by Timothy Conigrave
Trafalgar Studios 1
(2010)

In Holding the Man Tim Conigrave captures the charm of youthful innocence - larking about, illicit cigarettes behind the shed and competing with mates for the biggest penance by making up sins in the confessional. Tim's is a fantasy about comparing erections in the shower and is one of many signposts to his nascent homosexuality. When he comes to the realisation himself it is sudden, funny and poignant: "Fuck - I'm a poofter," he declares, then prays, "Please God, make me like girls".

The young Tim is endearing, announcing his virility over breakfast the morning after his first wet dream, and although the candid descriptions of his subsequent sexual rites of passage begin to pall, they mark his transition to manhood, and boy or girl, straight or gay, it is easy to empathise with the confusion, curiosity and sexual enthusiasm of adolescence.

When Tim falls for John, fellow Jesuit college student and captain of the football team, the focus becomes their relationship which was to last fifteen years in spite of parental disapproval, discrimination, infidelity and separation.

Tim goes off to university and drama school, broadening his sexual horizons and becoming something of a gay activist. He becomes much less likable as his willingness to hurt, neglect and cheat on John becomes apparent, and, although John's character is highly idealised and not fully drawn, the change of allegiance comes naturally in the face of Tim's unrelenting self-seeking.

Another turning point comes when both Tim and John test positive for HIV. John's progressive illnesses and harrowing treatment are charted in the same level of detail previously given to Tim's sexual exploits and the book essentially ends with John's death in 1992.

Tim Conigrave also went on to develop full blown AIDS and, because he knew he was dying, completing this book became an imperative. The theatre programme even suggests that he handed the manuscript to the publisher from his hospice bed only weeks before passing away.

In the circumstances it would be more comfortable to heap praise on the author and his work but not all duties are entirely agreeable and the book, which is moving and sincere, is no great work of literature.

Key amongst its failings are its lack of background, character development and changes in perspective. Having said that, this economic style makes for a pacey read and does work well with the choppy episodic nature of the narrative which maybe can also be explained by the pressing need to get the text down on paper.

Tommy Murphy has not written a play based on Holding the Man, he has adapted the book. This is the play's strength as well as its weakness.

For those who have read Holding the Man, and millions have, they will recognise many episodes from the book which have been faithfully transferred to the stage almost word-for-word which can of itself be satisfying. The linking narrative, though, is inadequate and its shortcomings transfer across in equal measure.

Murphy could have balanced it a little differently whilst still remaining true to the spirit of the original. He has centred the play on the heart-warming love story but, in doing so, has left behind some of the guts, and Tim dominates. Even when John is dying, it's still all about Tim. The wayward balance is true also in respect of Tim's and John's parents who are no more than caricatures. Certainly John's father behaved execrably and Tim's parents were intolerant but to dismiss their suffering and distress so fleetingly is a disservice.

Like a comedy sketch show, the first act is packed with comical scenes of first kisses and communal masturbation and the supporting characters are introduced at speed with Jane Turner, Simon Burke, Oliver Farnworth and Anna Skellern playing tens of characters between them, with lightening fast costume changes and swapping of wigs.

The second act has a darker feel and some longer scenes but nevertheless skims over the issues that arise. For a story where the key protagonist is a gay rights campaigner there is strangely no sense of need, rage or injustice, no call to arms. Comparison is often invidious but this lacks strength against The Normal Heart whose angry punches re-arrange your insides.

Matt Zeremes is convincing as John but Guy Edmonds' Tim failed to engage me at all. He is deft at turning on the tears but his Tim left me unmoved.

Simon Burke's and Jane Turner's versatility is exceptional and their principal performances are strong. Oliver Farnworth makes an excellent West End debut as Peter with Anna Skellern supporting well as Juliet and a number of smaller roles.

Tim Conigrave's story has clearly touched many people. The book is on its fourteenth print run and Holding the Man on stage has been a huge success in its native Australia, winning best play awards and being hailed in The Sun Herald review as having the makings of a classic.

There are some powerful moments and strong emotional triggers in this production and in the deathbed scene a small tear nudged my eye but the play failed to strike a chord with me in the way that it did the members of the audience who took to their feet at the curtain call.

"Holding The Man" runs until 3rd July

Sandra Giorgetti