11 June 2012

Torch Song Trilogy - Menier Chocolate Factory, Friday 8th June 2012

Arnold is a professional drag queen, known as "Virginia Hamm". While visiting a bar, Arnold meets Ed, who is uncomfortable with his bisexuality.  Their relationship is "on/off" and fairly turbulent. A year later, Ed has left and intends to marry his girlfriend Laurel. Arnold meets Alan, and the two settle down into a blissful existence that includes plans to adopt a child, until tragedy strikes. Several years pass, by which time Arnold is a single father raising gay teenager David, while Ed, having left Laurel and moved back in with Arnold, beings to find new aspects to their relationship. All three are forced to deal with the sudden arrival of Arnold's mother on a visit. 
Arnold Beckoff - David Bedella
Alan - Tom Harries
Mrs. Beckoff - Sara Kestelman
Ed Reiss - Joe McFadden
David - Perry Millward
Laurel - Laura Pyper

Written by Harvey Fierstein
Direction - Douglas Hodge
Design - Soutra Gilmour
Lighting Design - Paul Anderson
Sound Design - Gareth Owen
Musical Supervision - Cathy Jayes

Warning to theatre-goers! Apparently many theatres are now amending their starting time to 8pm “for the Olympics” That the Olympics have not yet started is apparently neither here nor there, apparently. Any new show that is set to run through Olympic period is amending its curtain up time to 8pm to give you more time to get to the theatre through the traffic chaos. Which, of course, is still six weeks or so away. Regardless or not of the fact that there are still six weeks in which the public transport system could be expected to function relatively normally, I would recommend you check the running time of any show and the departure time of your last train home before booking to see a performance in the next six weeks.

A further warning. The Menier is not known for the generosity of its seat size. You are crammed onto a bench with no dividing arm rests and if anyone on your bench is built for comfort rather than speed, you may well find that the person next to you is encroaching on your space. Fortunately, there were a couple of unsold seats at one end of my particular bench, and as I was feeling a little cramped, turned politely to the two women (from their reaction to my request I cannot possibly describe them as “ladies”) and asked, if the spaces remained empty by the start of the play, if they would mind shifting along slightly to address the spacing issues. I considered this to be a not unreasonable request, but got a curt refusal on the grounds of “restricted view” and “we bought these seats, we want to sit in them”. I grant that the “letterbox” staging of the first act did make it slightly difficult for people near the end of a row to see things taking place at the other end of the stage, but what is a couple of inches between friends?

Personally, I would say that the set design is extremely bad in this respect – the set is initially one unbroken run of wall, the outer sections of which remain static while the large central section moves backwards to give an increased stage area in the middle. The static areas are in fact very little used and therefore almost completely superfluous, and inhibit sight lines badly. Ensure you are either seated towards the middle of the theatre or book seats next to politer audience members than we did. The odd staging does also push the excellent harpist who plays during the first two acts into a very strange position, and it is a great shame that she is not permitted to take a solo bow at the end.

This is a very long show. Just a smidge over three hours (although apparently cut down significantly)  including interval (see above and check the times of your last train!). And, in retrospect, a very strange show too, made up as it is from three one-act plays of wildly varying lengths, tones and formats. The first (and by far the shortest), The International Stud, is, for most of its length, a one-person monologue in which the only actor on stage switches constantly between addressing the audience directly and interacting with imagined other characters, until another character finally enters and the play becomes a realistic duologue. The second, Fugue in a Nursery, is a four-hander, set within the confines of an enormous bed, in which two couples interact with their other halves and occasionally with the other couple. The third, Widows and Children First, much the longest, is a realistic piece on a realistic set. This makes for a somewhat roller-coaster evening as the audience are constantly having to adjust their perceptions to suit each act’s particular style. Added to this unease is the fact that each successive play becomes rawer and more gut-wrenchingly emotional in tone, although all are leavened by flashes of great humour.

The success or failure of the entire evening rests with one person, and I have to say that David Bedla. l;ast seen at the Menier in Road Show, pulled off the difficult and emotionally exhausting role of Arnold with considerable aplomb, great acting skills and superb timing. Initially, I admit that I initially drew comparisons with Harvey Fierstein, who both wrote the piece and starred as Arnold in the film, but I very quickly regretted my short-sightedness as the evening progressed and Bedlla wrestled with Fierstein on his own ground and won on his own terms. I initially also thought that the role of Ed was ill-served by Joe McFadden as he seemed too immature (both in terms of actual age and emotionally) but I gradually warmed to him and he seemed to increase in confidence and stature during the evening (respect to the man for competently and quick-wittedly dealing with the complete disintegration of a vital prop).. I do, however, still think he is too young for the role by at least 10 years. By contrast, he was Laurence Oliver to Tom Harriess Alan, who played the role as a lisping, prissy, totally vacuous and occasionally vicious little queen, clearly cast by Douglas Hodge for his physique, perky nipples and outward appearance rather than for any vestige of acting talent he may or may not possess. On this showing, the answer is “does not possess”. I say this with the full knowledge that I compared him to Matthew Broderick who played this role in the film version and found him wanting, but there were times when I felt like marching up on to the stage and giving him a good hard slap. Larua Piper’s Laurel rather faded into the background for me as the least defined performance of the evening, but I acknowledge that the role is not a particularly great one. Perry Millward shows a considerably amount of geeky charm as David, but Sara Kestelman, who should have stalked the stage like a Jewish Medea appeared badly settled into her role, and, on this one occasion when the role requires “playing it Jewish” was necessary, seemed not to be taking the opportunity of doing so. That is not to say that I didn’t find her performance a good one, but lines written for a Jewish/Brooklyn character really do need to be delivered in a Jewish/Brooklyn accent and manner. As a consequence, the pivotal role of Arnold’s mother seemed somewhat diminished by her performance. I concede (again; I don’t usually make this many concessions as regular readers will no doubt agree) that this was a preview performance so perhaps she is still finding her way into the role.

There is much to be enjoyed here, particularly if you are a fan of the film (in which case you will spend most of the evening anticipating the next great line in your head, or even out loud – guilty as charged!), are of (or have friends of) the Grumpy Old Poof persuasion who were growing up and coming out in the 1980s, live within spitting distance of the Menier so that you can get home before midnight as a result of the late start time, or are extremely thin and can fit in your allocated space on a cramped bench.





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