The Lisbon Traviata

Terrence McNally
King's Head
(2003)

If Giuseppe Verdi had lived in New York in the 1980s then perhaps La Traviata might have ended up more like Terrence McNally's play of lost love.

The parallels with the original are not too closely drawn. For consumption read Aids and instead of Violetta, the "Queen" of the ball is Stephen, an intelligent and articulate gay editor.

The first half of the play is set in a louche living room beautifully designed by Lisa Lillywhite and packed with soft furnishings and records. The crowning glory is a shrine to the play's real heroine, Maria Callas.

The owner of the flat, Mendy, movingly and hilariously played by David Bamber, is in thrall to the memory of Miss Callas and like his best friend, Marcus d'Amico's Stephen, can recite dates and locations of every operatic performance in living memory. Their love for each other is entirely operatic but also much to Mendy's disappointment, platonic.

This act is wonderfully controlled under the direction of Stephen Henry with every word and every physical movement seemingly perfect. The two characters are entirely believable and their relationship is really touching.

Whilst McNally packs in jokes and references to opera, one is never allowed to forget that these are two lonely, middle-aged men who are seeing their friends dying from a disease that is too scary to name.

Stephen has his own problems as his hunky, lover of eight years, Michael (Tristan Gemmill), a doctor who has got bored with him, chooses to forsake Stephen for the younger and cuter Paul (Matthew Thrift). The second act in Stephen's minimalist apartment, a wonderful contrast, loses pace as he and Michael bicker but eventually builds to a suitably over-the-top, operatic climax.

This is a very entertaining play, as the older men search for the love that is metaphorically represented by a record of the elusive, imperfect eponymous recording. It is a mystery as to why it has taken something like twenty years to cross the Atlantic.

The Lisbon Traviata is extremely funny but also heart rending and, in this production, is distinguished by wonderfully appropriate design and two great performances. It will prove a massive draw for gay audiences but if it is restricted on the grounds of sexual preference, many others will miss a great evening's entertainment.

Philip Fisher