Torch Song is the inaugural production of The Turbine Theatre, which is based in a new development next to Battersea Power Station.
New York in the late 1970s. It has a buzzing nightlife, where gay men can be at ease – but not every gay man has the same aspirations. Arnold is longing for someone to set up home with and share his life. He works as a drag queen, which already is a sign of his gentle nature, but also one that does not make any compromises: “I am, what I am,” to quote a fellow drag queen from that period, Albin in La Cage aux Folles. Dignity is something Arnold values highly.
Arnold meets Ed, but his dreams are shattered, when Ed decides he is better off with a woman at his side. Of course, he loves her… but differently from the way he feels about Arnold, to whom he can truly open up his heart. Arnold’s heart, however, has gone through too many agonies already to let himself in with someone who does not stand up for what he feels – because Arnold knows exactly what he feels and even dares to dream of a fulfilled life, which includes, for example, adopting a child… New York was the first state at the time to accept gay applicants.
The Turbine Theatre shows an abridged version of Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song Trilogy, hence only Torch Song. The trilogy version was first shown on Broadway in 1982, and revived to great acclaim not too long ago at the Menier Chocolate Factory, London, in 2012, with David Bedella playing Arnold. Fierstein revised the piece two years ago.
It’s a magnificent play with lots of witty lines, which capture the complexities of human relationships in a very heartfelt way. At the same time, it offers a telling picture of gay life and the continuing struggle within a predominantly straight society, even after gay liberation in the early 1970s.
The first act deals with Arnold and Ed’s fraught relationship, which stays within the gay community; the second branches out and includes Ed’s wife, who considers it ‘cool’ to get to know Ed’s former boyfriend; and, by the third act, Arnold’s dream has finally come true, but we also see an example of the cruel reality that the gay community was still exposed to. Arnold’s lover was brutally killed and sparks fly when his Jewish mother (Bernice Stegers), visiting from Florida, regards it as a catastrophe that Arnold, as a gay man, should raise a child. It’s clearly the strongest act, with emotions running high, but also with Arnold’s adopted teenage son (Jay Lycurgo) bringing a refreshing playfulness and lightness to the piece, which counteracts the family drama. He is a joy to watch.
Matthew Needbham’s Arnold has a slender figure, which gives him an air of vulnerability. His relative youth also adds a different twist to the story. You can sense his struggle to find a meaningful relationship but also his anger at life. Unfortunately this comes at a cost and more varied and nuanced tones would have been welcome. A performance highlight is his sexual adventure in the backroom of a nightclub, which is truly funny and sad at the same time.
After having choreographed and directed major musicals on Broadway and in the West End, Drew McOnie now stages his first play. It’s a pleasant production, but the brilliance of Fierstein’s humour and humanity could have been brought out more to let the characters sparkle.
Nevertheless, it’s great to be reminded of this masterpiece and to share it with a younger generation.
Torch Song runs at The Turbine Theatre until 13 October.
By Sabine Schereck
For more information about the play, Out In South London spoke to David Bedella in July 2012.