Review – Holding the Man, Trafalgar Studios

Friday 7 May 2010

Apparently the quality of  the West End Whingers has declined since we began too eagerly to play the freebies game and have become digested by the machinery.

Well, not to worry, we’re giving up reviewing anyway and going into producing instead. Mind you, it’s not all plain sailing. Andrew’s plans for an all-singing, all-dancing, all-acting multimedia production of Farepak about the UK’s biggest ever corporate collapse of a Christmas club have been shelved following the disappointing early-closure of Enron on Broadway.

So in the meantime it’s back to reviewing. Or procrastinating about reviewing. We’ve been sitting on this since its Tuesday opening which the machinery invited us to attend. The machinery didn’t invite us to the post-show party but we went anyway.

And we still didn’t care too much for the play.

On the one hand it is a fairly humdrum, over-long, dispiritingly linear piece of theatre but on the other hand its heart – which it wears on the capped sleeve of its 80s T shirt – is undoubtedly in a good place, based as it is on a relatively moving true love & death story about two gay men who die of AIDS.

Timothy Conigrave’s posthumously published memoir (on which Tommy Murphy‘ Holding the Man is based) is apparently highly regarded in Australia and the whole production seems to be invested with some kind of reverence for the late Mr Conigrave which made the Whingers feel somewhat uncomfortable. Did we detect some unspoken understanding that the short-comings of  the production (of which there are many) would be outweighed by the fact that it is a sad, true story about nice people? Or perhaps we were just imagining it. Perhaps we are detecting egg-shells under our feet where there are none. Or perhaps our espadrilles have become trapped in the cogs of the machinery that has digested us.

Anyway, to raise the stakes even higher there is a direct emotional investment laid bare to anyone who has read the programme (or one of the many interviews) for there on the stage of the Trafalgar Studios is a friend of Tim Conigrave: Kath and Kim‘s Jane Turner.

Anyway, Tim (Guy Edmonds) and particularly John Caleo (Matt Zeremes) seem nice enough chaps. They met while still at school in the 1970s, quickly became a couple (amid a seemingly astonishing absence of homophobia) and remained together off and on for the rest of their lives which were both brutally curtailed by the arrival of AIDS in the early 1980s. Caleo died in 1992, Conigrave two years later.

Apart from Edmonds and Zeremes the cast play multiple characters in a rag bag of costumes and wigs, constantly changing on and off stage. Simon Burke manages this rather well, looking and seeming completely different in the numerous parts he inhabits. It’s quite difficult to believe it’s the same person we’ve already seen when he plays Tim’s father in the closing scenes.

The first act sees Tim and John discovering and exploring their sexuality and falling in love. The dialogue is decidedly fruity (no pun intended) and definitely not something the Whingers would want their mothers to hear. Phil was anxious for Blanche Marvin who was seated a few rows in front of the Whingers but Andrew assured him that over the theatre-going years she would have heard worse. And seen: there’s a group masturbation scene (albeit in sleeping bags). Phil wouldn’t have known where to look had he been seated next to Blanche. The Whingers were actually seated next to Mark Shenton and his partner. Thank goodness it wasn’t Mother’s Day.

The audience were howling with laughter at the rather broad comedy of the first act. The Whingers were intermittently amused and mainly by Jane Turner who can raise a laugh with a single word or two steps across the stage. Her roles include both Tim’s and John’s mothers, doctors, gay men and a male theatre director who resembles Michael Foot. She’s as funny as you’d expect but is largely wasted, never really getting a chance to develop a proper character. And it really is a bit naughty to have her face dominating the outside of the Trafalgar Studios as though she is the star of the show when she is no doubt trying to downplay her stardom in her performance. It did raise expectations rather.

On the plus side the first act has a brief scene with 40 lava lamps. Andrew must have been much more engaged than Phil (or nodding off) as he didn’t even notice this extravagance. Phil found counting them gave him something to think about and wonder if the programme would have a credit for Mathmos (it did).

Again, we hadn’t done our research, didn’t know the autobiographical book by Tim Conigrave on which Tommy Murphy‘s adaptation is based, so didn’t know the direction the play was going to take, although it’s pretty obvious from the events and the period they happen in during the overlong 1st act that comedy was going to turn to tragedy in the second.

HTM started as a fringe production down under in 2006 and was hugely successful, but there’s something that still feels like it’s a fringe production and the Trafalgar studios isn’t the best venue for this play. When Tim addresses his audience in an extract from one of his plays within this play “even though the seats are so uncomfortable you don’t notice” was he really addressing the Trafalgar Studios audience squeezed into its uncomfortable seats?

Perhaps that’s why people ovated? Perhaps we were back on The Broadway? Perhaps it was because it was a first night and full of friends and people connected with the production? Perhaps it was because the seats are just so ghastly that everyone needed to stretch their legs?

The Whingers certainly needed to stretch their legs to get their circulations going and get some blood pumping into their empty hearts. The play may have its heart in the right place but – with the exception of the rather effective death scene – it barely touched ours. Perhaps we got jammed in the machinery.


Eagerly playing the freebies game

Jane Turner a bit overcome with excitement at meeting the Whingers.

6 Responses to “Review – Holding the Man, Trafalgar Studios”

  1. Rev Stan Says:

    I actually quite enjoyed Holding the Man. Like you I hadn’t done any research but I laughed in the first half and cried in the second and there aren’t many plays you can say that about.
    I saw it in preview week and Jane Turner got several rounds of spontaneous applause for not really doing much.

  2. Philk Says:

    Yes, but Enron was a hit in London! Do not let the funny attiude of New York theatre go-ers put you off from producing your magnus opus on corporate failure. The story of Farepak, and the cautionary lesson it presents for our society, just has to be told.

  3. Dickie and Butch Says:

    “Apparently the quality of the West End Whingers has declined since we began too eagerly to play the freebies game and have become digested by the machinery.”

    So are you aware or not?

  4. My response too – I just didn’t get it. An interesting discussion happened <a href="; on my blog after the Melbourne production.

  5. Jorge Says:

    Guys, one day I’ll take you to meet the wizard and hopefully he can find you both a heart 🙂

    PS. I also saw a preview and there was a full ovation that night.

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