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Torch Song

Harvey Fierstein
Bill Kenright / Paul Taylor-Mills
The Turbine Theatre
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Paul Taylor Mills, Artistic Director of the newly opened Turbine Theatre in Battersea, describes Harvey Fierstein’s semi-autobiographical Torch Song Trilogy as “one of the most important plays ever written”. Quite a claim for this undoubtedly pioneering gay drama.

After all, the play’s espousal of gay monogamy and domesticity may irritate those who argue for freedom to choose their own lifestyle. Fierstein once proclaimed in an interview: “everyone wants what Arnold wants—an apartment they can afford, a job they don’t hate too much, a chance to go to the store once in a while, and someone to share it all with.” Everyone? That said, though gay marriage, which the play dares to imagine and champion, is now a reality, the oppression, exploitation and victimisation of those marginalised by society remains as relevant today as it was when Fierstein’s 1978-81 triptych was written—a time when homosexuality was still considered a mental illness. The torch still burns.

First, and to get my gripe over and done with, what of the new Turbine Theatre, nestled underneath the arches, nestled alongside buzzing restaurants and bars? Well, as heightened moments of comic and confessional repeatedly fell victim to volcanic rumbling and trembling as trains traversed overhead—sometimes several times a minute—I lost hope that this venue might have potential for dramatic intimacy. Though I should say that other punters seemed less distracted by the din.

The production, directed by Drew McOnie, presents the 2017 revised / reduced version of Fierstein’s original four-hour-plus triptych. Though the three parts are deftly defined by Ryan Dawson Laight’s designs and the costumes pitch-perfect, McOnie doesn’t quite find a way to unify the three parts.

We start with The International Stud—essentially a dramatic monologue in which Arnold Beckoff, a drag artiste in a Manhattan cabaret club, laments his loss of faith in forming a genuine relationship as he is visited backstage by men who are looking for anything but ‘true love’. There follows Fugue in a Nursery, set a year later when Arnold and his new boyfriend Alan pay a weekend visit to Ed Reese, Arnold’s former lover, and the latter’s new amour, Laurel. Concluding the sequence is Widows and Children: five years have passed, Alan has been killed in a homophobic assault and the bereaved Arnold lives with the divorced Ed and his gay foster son, David. When Mrs Beckoff pays a call, reconciliation between mother and son seems a distant hope.

The directorial challenge is to sustain the audience’s engagement with Arnold and to create a convincing progression from the direct ‘seduction’ of the audience in part 1—through the paper-cut one-liners of Arnold’s playful account of his loves and losses—to the sitcom domesticity of part 3 in which Arnold’s attempt to validate his identity and relationships threatens to become an argument about whose grief and pain are the greater, leaving the audience distanced observers of the mother-son alienation.

From the first, Matthew Needham’s Arnold is troubled, his camp sensibility less a mischievous way of dealing with life’s ups, downs and experiences and more an exposure of physical and emotional discomfort. Just as Needham uses his height and extreme thinness—and he shows a lot of flesh—to express the fraught emotions within, so his quips and yarns are less self-deprecating and more self-lacerating—flung out bitterly with an excoriating sharpness. Though Needham gets some laughs, this is not humour from the heart, but from the hurt.

Arnold’s physicality is countered by the masculinity of Dino Fetscher’s Ed. The latter is one of those whom Arnold might describe as “hopeless”—married “just for the weekend”—but Fetscher’s exploration of Ed’s bisexuality is convincing, as he finds complex emotional textures which counter Arnold’s one-dimensional banter. His relationship with Laurel has a realism founded on Ed’s strength and Daisy Boulton’s vivacity and when he finds himself attracted to Alan (Rish Shah), an aspiring fashion model, Ed’s confusion is touching and tender in a way that Arnold’s dilemmas are not.

Jay Lycurgo bounces with boyish charm and innocent affection as David, the adopted son in whom Arnold is trying to instil self-acceptance, love and respect. Bernice Stegers gives a rather unnuanced account of a bullish Jewish matriarch, initially despatching the one-liners with aplomb but developing little despite her soul-bearing exchanges with her son.

There is some effective stagecraft and choreography. The act I telephone conversation between Ed and Arnold divides the stage into two halves, one bordered in red, the other green, and brings the men ever closer together—though their backs are symbolically turned. The Latin fuga is the root of both fugara (to chase) and fugere (to flee), and the simultaneity of exchanges and physical-verbal counterpoint in the huge bed that dominates part 2 is slickly done.

But, overall, there seems to me to be too much pain and not enough pathos. Part 1 should show us that Arnold’s make-up, mannerisms and mockeries are a burlesque act—a mechanism which paradoxically opens the way to, rather than conceals, his heart. And in that heart, it’s not simply suffering but rather sentimentality and a gentle sadness that resides. After all, a torch song is a slightly schmaltzy song about unrequited love. Needham seems too anguished and his anecdotes more agonised than amusing.

Surely what Arnold really wants is honesty and affirmation: his attempt to find this through fidelity and family is a hopeful, humorous quest. Yet, Needham pushes Arnold into some dark places and at this performance seemed despairing and exhausted by the close, barely able to catch the audience’s collective eye during the curtain calls.

Reviewer: Claire Seymour