Review – Torch Song Trilogy, Menier Chocolate Factory

Wednesday 13 June 2012

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.



10 Responses to “Review – Torch Song Trilogy, Menier Chocolate Factory”

  1. Claire Says:

    Ive been waiting for this review eagerly, because i hated this production- although I love the play. You’ve been kind. The standard of acting is dreadful.

  2. Politely disagree, Claire. I thought the acting was fine (apart from Tom Rhys Harries who will eventually discover that hours in the gym and perky nipples are no substitute for dramatic talent) and it was the directing that let it down. Douglas Hodge seems to me caught permanently between screaming queenery and Adoration Of The Pinter and tries to encompass both here to lumpen effect. You have a two-handed sketch worthy of the Vauxhall Tavern, a soggy flip-floppy ‘Weekend In The Country’ played out all in white like La Ronde in a laundry, and every eighties’ sitcom revisited in the Jewish Mother routine for Act 3. McFadden who is a good casting is lazily allowed to get away with aw-shucks gaucherie instead of edge, and even the excellent Perry Millward is instantly full-on comic giving his character less of an arc than it deserves. I wished Sara Kestelman had played the bigoted Jewish Mom without the wig, she’d have been a dead ringer for Melanie Phillips.

  3. npm Says:

    The acting is fine! The directing is fine!
    The problem is the script, which needs a thorough prune, especially in Acts 2 & 3.
    (PS I loved the singing, especially at the end which caught me off guard and made me blub.)

  4. mijosh Says:

    Nothing (even the delectable Mr McFadden) could induce me to go anywhere near TST. I loathed the original B’way production (especially the waaay ott Mr Fierstein) more than almost anything I’ve ever seen in the theatre. I remember leaving the Helen Hayes theatre in a rage.

  5. gill Says:

    I went and thought it was great. Enjoyed the acting and was entertained throughout.

  6. I saw this play last night and thought the production was great. I’m in a minority here I know but I thought Tom Rhys Harries was good – he is supposed to be that annoying and is obviously a rebound from Ed. Young people can be that difficult and I thought he acted it well. Apart from David Bedella, I thought Perry Millward was the best on stage. I laughed out loud many times, I was deeply moved and I would recommend this production to anyone.

  7. John Carter Says:

    At risk of sounding too historicosociologico, this prod is soo worth seeing as a revival of an important gay play as well as for its own qualities. Acting good throughout, brill in places, dynamic, our audience very responsive to jokes. And after almost 30 yrs you can enjoy the jokes without the worrying undertow of anxieties they represented in the 80s. Real problems positively presented, this was breakthru then. V puzzled by strong neg reactions to first prod and this revival. Already looking ‘period’? Yes but so what? Too long, undoubtedly but not chronically. Some nuancing needed, but not much. Great comic writing, real in-ur-face passion, I’m-not-going-away beliefs, all served by classy, pacey performances.

  8. Ian Scott Says:

    I went yesterday to the matinee and thought that it was superb. The acting was, I thought, excellent and brought tears to my eyes several times. The killing of Alan, was dealt with rather too quickly and there was no chance to experience Arnolds grief. The weekend away scene was very well choreographed. Overall a really enjoyable performance. Pity though that Rebecca Royce was not acknowledged at the end! Hope to be able to go again to appreciate the quality of the production.

  9. Peter Warren Says:

    I absolutely loved the show. I’ve never seen the film and wasn’t even bothered about going (my partner booked the tickets) but I thought it was wonderful. Acting was superb and I loved the scene where they were all in bed together acting out separate scenes. Great songs too. I give it 4out of 5. A great show all round.

  10. Johnjee Says:

    I went tonight and really enjoyed myself. I thought the script was very sharp and hasn’t aged too badly at all. I found myself thinking “oh I wish I had thought of a line like that when…” and “Oh I’ll use that line”. All the play’s characters are strong and I guess we each identify with different ones more than others. All had love in their hearts.

    I agree the long bed scene would have been better if the bed had been a theatrical “sloper” so everyone could see beyond the bed covers. Although that said I have no complaints with my view of Tom Rhys Harries beautifully toned body and vivid blue eyes. I found the play stimulated my loins and brain in equal measure! All told I had a thoroughly enjoyable night.

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