Writer: Simon Reade, adapted from the novel by Christopher Isherwood
Director: Philip Wilson
The title of Christopher Isherwood’s novel A Single Man has many layers. Its titular protagonist is George, an upright, uptight Englishman teaching at a California college in the early 1960s. He is singular, standing out in a society beginning to loosen up and embrace counterculturalism. He is just one man in a sea of individuals that he meets over the course of one day. He is gay in a time when that means one can never marry. And that being the case, he is not officially a widower after the sudden death of his partner.
Theo Fraser Steele takes on the role of George in Simon Reade’s adaptation. It is a character inhabited with steely grief in Tom Ford’s 2009 film by Colin Firth; despite being over a decade old, that version looms large over the Park Theatre’s new interpretation.
As with the novel, the play takes place over a twenty-four hour period in George’s life, from dawn to dawn. Steele acts as both lead character and narrator, showing us everything from his own point of view. The house he shared with his deceased boyfriend, the much younger Jim (Miles Moran), once intimately tiny, now feels oppressive when shared with so many ghost images of his former love.
As Steele progresses through his day, documenting a strained relationship with his neighbours and his life as a professor, it is often the characters he interacts with who seem much more alive than the play’s central character is. This is the point of Isherwood’s novel, to an extent: George’s encounters begin to awaken a sense within him of what it means to be alive. But Steele’s blank slate of a central character feels, initially at least, as if he is draining the colour from CaitlinAbbott’s already starkly muted set. When coupled with Reade’s prose, echoing the literary characteristics of the source material, it often feels more like a physical representation of an audiobook than a play.
Matters improve substantially, though, as George spends time with the two most substantial supporting characters of the piece. Olivia Darnley’s Charley is a fellow Brit who, after the departure of both her husband and son, is even more despondent than her friend and has made the decision to return to England and move in with the sister she hates.
George and Charley’s affection for each other is tempered by his inability to respond to her flirtations and her resentment at his lack of reciprocation. Darnley is wonderful here, fully inhabiting her role in a way that Steele’s largely monotonous delivery suggests he cannot.
As they part ways, George encounters one of his students, Kenny (Molan again). To modern eyes, their interactions are fraught with problematic overtones. Still, within the context of the era, the younger man’s flirtatious attitude – enhanced by our knowledge that he is played by the same actor who portrayed George’s dead love – does its job of reviving a similarly lustful side in the Englishman. As with George, these encounters begin to reveal something previously hidden in Steele, as he finally begins to embody George rather than recite his dialogue.
As the twenty-four hours in George’s company draws to a close, the play gives us a man who, maybe, has begun to come to terms with his lover’s passing, and is finally prepared to live again. The show’s final moments should, then, come to an emotional climax: instead, we are gifted with a conclusion that may be satisfying but which fails to quicken the pulse.
There is a sense of searching throughout. Charley, Kenny and George are all single people, regardless of their relationship status, all looking for something which nobody is able to provide. And we, too, as an audience are looking for a connection. That A Single Man is unable to provide us with one is thematically appropriate, but in an artistically disappointing way.
Continues until 26 November