You need only look at the posters on the walls of Soutra Gilmour’s set in the third play/act of Torch Song Trilogy to pick up little nods to the stage histories of the play’s author, its director (Douglas Hodge) and even one of its award-winning performers. There’s visual cross-referencing alongside cross-dressing in Harvey Fierstein’s comedy-drama.
TST started out as 3 individual plays: The International Stud, Fugue in a Nursery and Widows and Children First which were then condensed into this Best Play Tony-winning trilogy 30 odd years ago.
It hardly needs saying the Whingers are
mature ancient enough to have seen it first time round. Andrew didn’t care for it much even then. Phil was impressed when he saw it on The Broadway; but then that was a different era altogether.
Things kick off promisingly enough to the strains of a harpist (Rebecca Royce). Yes, a harpist! The play opens with torch-singing and slightly needy drag queen Arnold’s dressing room monologue on the perils of love. Charismatic David Bedella‘s gravelly-voiced delivery explains his suffering wittily and largely unsentimentally. Even more impressively he dons his wig (by periwig supremo Richard Mawbey) perfectly in one swishy move. Plus we get the first burst of Donna Summer playing in the background at the Menier since Abigail’s Party. Is it Donna Summer season at the Chocolate Factory?
But it’s when we move to the La Ronde-ish Fuge there’s a dip worthy of the recession. Arnold takes his pretty young lover Alan (Tom Rhys Harries) to spend a weekend in the country with his bisexual ex-boyfriend Ed (Joe McFadden) and Ed’s girlfriend Laurel (Laura Pyper). Performed on a massive bed the Menier’s sightlines prove problematic. The bed needs to be higher as you largely only get to see the heads of the characters as they emerge and disappear under the covers. They bicker, they thrash about, heck, they even do the washing up in bed. Perhaps only Tracey Emin could engage with their frankly rather tedious shenanigans.
Apart from Arnold it’s really difficult to care about anyone in this scene. Maybe that’s the point. Therapy-speak also rears its head from under the sheets and the urge to hold the pillows over their faces becomes paramount.
After that scene the biggest dilemma we were left with was not about the characters’ situations but whether to stay or leave at the interval. It was touch and go (not unlike Arnold’s earlier gay bar backroom antics). Fortunately vague memories of the last play/act being the best were dredged up from somewhere and the correct decision was made.
Several years on and a tragedy has left Arnold single again. His mother (Sara Kestelman) is visiting from Florida and doesn’t know he’s raising a gay teenager David (Perry Millward) so there’s a little explaining to be done. What follows is a battle between a Jewish mother and Arnold who has clearly turned into one himself. It’s by far the most engaging of the plays, aided in no small part by Kestelman and an entertainingly assured performance from Millward as the camp and mouthy 15-year-old. Phil was also delighted to see momma preparing latkes; the best potato-peeling scene at the Menier since Meera Syal attacked the spuds in Shirley Valentine.
Bedella’s often hilarious yet sympathetic performance is impressive and holds the show together but TST still remains the sum of its parts; it now seems very much of its day and the more cynical among us should look away at the occasional mawkish moment. Perhaps dragging on is appropriate in the circumstances but at 2 hours 50 minutes it outstays its welcome despite being commendably shorter than the original which ran at about 4 hours.
Fierstein also wrote the book for La Cage Aux Folles. That show’s anthemic lyrics in “I Am What I Am” pretty much cover what he’s getting at much more succinctly.