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William Finn's musical trilogy Falsettos has a cherished place in New York theatre lore but never really made its mark on this side of the pond.
Written and set in the 1980s, it follows what happens when Marvin (Daniel Boys), a rather self-absorbed, needy, New York Jewish man, leaves his wife (Laura Pitt-Pulford) and son Jason (Albert Atack) for a hunky younger man called Whizzer (Oliver Savile) but still wants to keep his family together to plan Jason's bar mitzvah. She finds solace in the arms of their family therapist.
It is too easy to forget that in the 1980s, especially during the post Aids backlash against gays, staging such couplings was very radical stuff. So, rather like Harvey Fierstein's Torch Song (which, curiously, has just opened the new Turbine Theatre in Battersea, to great acclaim), this is now a period piece. Unlike it however this play hasn't really aged well.
Finn premiered the first section, In Trousers, off-Broadway in 1979 and followed with two additional one acts March of the Falsettos (1982) and Falsettoland (1990). 'March' did have a brief outing in London in 1987. The combined version, which we get here, debuted in 1992 on Broadway winning both critical plaudits and Tonys. By 2016 when it had a major Broadway revival, gay marriage had of course become legal and so it seemed then to celebrate just how far the gay community had come.
Because the piece was written over 10 years it both predated and then evolved through the whole Aids crisis which of course totally altered the lives of characters such as these. In the final part we witness one the key characters, Whizzer, succumbing to the disease.
Finn writes great songs and 'Four Jews in a Room Bitching' or 'The Baseball Game' are wonderfully tart musical-comedy numbers but then comes the leaden recitative which drains the life out of it.
The piece has an anxious frenetic urgency to it which is trying. This is possibly because of its origins in a trilogy which got condensed but, in any case, the result is that it never really allows any space for an emotional response to develop in the viewer. This is not aided by Tara Overfield-Wilkinson's fussy direction here, which badly needs to calm it all down and doesn't.
PJ McEvoy's effective designs use projections onto picture frames, giving it all a cartoon-strip feel which, in many ways, is reflective of the broad-brush approach to characterisation that is in the book. A chessboard floor, too, is a nod to the son Jason's devoted hobby.
The characters are all pickled in self-hatred and the '80s values they exhibit will strike today's audiences today as quite alien. They show just how far we've come. Torch Song managed to rise above these problems because its theme of mothers and sons was universal but here the piece is just too desperate to please all the time. It undermines itself by always settling for easy sentiment just when it needs to cut through the musical comedy shtick and settle on something deeper.
A stellar cast however elevates the material and the quality of the singing throughout is top notch. Pitt-Pulford astutely balances the comedy and pathos in 'I'm Breaking Down', a one-act opera all to itself. Oliver Savile's voice is even more notable than his leading-man good looks and Daniel Boys expertly manages to humanise the grouchy Marvin. Young Albert Atack playing Jason more than holds his own in this fine company, which is a great achievement.