Writer: Harvey Fierstein
Director: Drew McOnie
Reviewer: Richard Maguire
Opening the new Turbine Theatre tucked under a railway arch alongside Battersea Power Station is Torch Song, Harvey Fierstein’s new version of his important play Torch Song Trilogy, first seen in New York in 1982. Wordy and long, it’s a bold choice for the Turbine’s first show, but, with the help of some fine acting and crisp direction, Torch Song feels right at home.
Fierstein’s original production ran for over four hours, but this trimmed down version shaves off 90 minutes for modern-day audiences. The lead character, Arnold was played by Fierstein himself when the show first opened, and indeed in the film, which was released in 1988, and while he may be a hard act to follow, Anthony Sher took the lead role in the 1985 British premiere. Arnold is a complex role, but here, in this latest revival, Matthew Needham manages to put his own stamp on the part-time drag queen, full-time father and faithful lover.
Despite looking a little young to play the part, Needham does well to chart the journey of self-hating queen to responsible father, without ever having to compromise Arnold’s camp and feminine behaviour. In the 1980s some thought that the identity of a queen was a throwback to the past, an embarrassment to the machismo of gay life. Only in recent years has there be a return to these old identities, seeing value in how they offer other ways of living. Therefore this revival seems perfectly timed.
Apart from one short scene when we first meet Arnold’s on-off lover Ed, Needham is always on stage, and by the time we see him in his apartment raising a family he fully inhabits the role. The rest of the cast are just as good with Dino Fetscher (looking good in flares) excellent as the confused Ed. There is good work, too, from Daisy Boulton, who, as the modern Laurel, brings something of Laura Linney to her performance. The indomitable Anne Bancroft played Arnold’s mother in the film, but here Bernice Stegers is just as hilarious as the Jewish matriarch.
They are joined by two young actors making their debuts: Rish Shah, who plays another one of Arnold’s boyfriends, and Jay Lycurgo, who gives an extraordinarily confident performance as 15-year old David. Lycurgo is surely a name to look out for in the future. The whole cast deal well with Fierstein’s unusual structure, which builds from monologues, to dialogues and then finally to group scenes. This structure symbolises quite neatly the move from loneliness to self-confidence.
At first, the stage seems far away from the back of the raked seating in the tunnel of an auditorium, but Ryan Dawson Laight’s design sensibly puts the focus on the actors whether they are backstage at the International Stud, the club where Arnold performs, or in the kitchen of Arnold’s New York apartment. A middle scene set in Ed’s country house portrays a series of various dialogues and is directed with panache by Drew McOnie, who rarely lets the action flag.
So, it’s a good start for the Turbine, and despite the number of new theatres opening in the last year in London, artistic director Paul Taylor Mills should easily find an audience for Torch Song. But the bar is now set high for its next production.
Runs until 13 October 2019 | Image: Mark Senior