By Harvey Fierstein
At the Menier Chocolate Factory, London.
to August 12, 2012
In 1982 Harvey Fierstein’s play blazed a trail with its unapologetic and assertive representation of gay life. At a time when it was considered the height of bravery or stupidity to play gay, Antony Sher successfully took on the part in London. Soon made into a hit movie, Torch Song Trilogy holds a special place in the hearts of many. Thirty years on, however, we can safely say that, thankfully, it has dated.
Stripped of its political urgency, the piece is revealed as rather conventional and square even, at times overwritten, and in all a little too tart for its own good.
Filling the stilettos of Fierstein as the drag queen hero Arnold, and channelling that unmistakably rasping voice, is the American actor David Bedella. He made a great splash as Satan in Jerry Springer the Opera and while he certainly has the dramatic finesse for the part, he neglects to draw out the vulnerability and neediness underneath Arnold’s torrent of sardonic quips. Without this the piece lacks heart.
It’s partly a problem of the writing, though. In a three-hour play (it was longer) the central character remains a cipher for ideas rather than a fully rounded human being. Too self-knowing and with more soliloquies than Hamlet, after a while you wanna shout out at him “Enough already with the tawk”.
Arnold finds love with wavering teacher Ed (an engaging Joe McFadden) who loves him but won’t settle for a life in the gay ghetto. He loses Joe to girlfriend Laurel (Laura Pyper) and on the rebound he hooks up with a hot young model Alan (Tom Rhys Harries), only to lose him in a violent homophobic attack. Ed returns for the third part of this triptych where we meet Arnold’s formidable mother played by Sara Kestelman in formidable Jewish momma mode, and David, a gay teenager whom Arnold is fostering.
Perry Millward brings a great sassy energy to the part of David but it’s a role that stretches credulity. A damaged 15-year-old foster kid wouldn’t have this degree of confidence and self-awareness and neither would a foster agency have been likely then to entrust him with the likes of Arnold.
While the play makes a heartfelt plea for understanding the sacrifices of gay people in a hostile world, and rehearses arguments that badly needed airing at the time, it also too often settles for easy sentimentality or melodramatic tricks. Killing off the charming young lover of the main protagonist makes our hero more sympathetic but it does also reek a bit of the old days when gays had to either end up mad or dead to elicit our sympathy.
The acclaimed actor Douglas Hodge, whose Olivier and Tony-winning role in Fierstein’s La Cage Aux Folles began here at the Menier, introduces some neat directorial flourishes. Daringly staging the second act entirely on a large bed, he has the characters tumbling in and out between the sheets like a formation swimming team. But it works and it relieves the endless relationship angst talk. He also shares around the torch songs, which punctuate the play, although he does undermine their power a little by choosing to have some accompanied by an Irish harp. Beautiful as it is to hear, these harp strings don’t tear the heartstrings the way they should.
So, an accomplished revival of a play, which without Fierstein’s own presence in it, will always appear a little underpowered.
I’m sure he’d smile at the essay in the programme which kindly explains to the post-gay generation what a torch song is. Now I feel old.