Wednesday, 4 September 2019

REVIEW: Torch Song at the Turbine Theatre

It is always exciting to go to a brand new venue and see actors you have enjoyed before in excellent productions, especially in fresh reworking of a ground breaking play. So it was a pleasure to visit the brand new Turbine Theatre under the railways arches next to the swish new redevelopment of Battersea Power Station and see Matthew Needham and Daisy Boulton in a new reworking of Harvey Fierstein's acclaimed Torch Song Trilogy. Matthew Needham was outstanding at Chichester Minerva last year in Mike Bartlett's play C**k and later in the superb production of Summer and Smoke. Boulton I saw in her RADA graduation year in 2013.

Fierstein has taken his 1982 collection of plays Torch Song Trilogy in which he also starred and edited them into a three act play under the title Torch Song. While they deal with the same characters at sequential stages of the central character, Arnold Berkoff's life, they each have a different style of presentation . In the first, The International Stud, we see Arnold as a drag queen Virginia Ham, and in gay clubs seeking love and friendship where he meets Ed but it is staged in a series of monologues mainly spoken directly at the audience with virtually no interaction between the characters. In the second, Fugue in a Nursery, the action between the two couples, Laurel and Ed, and Arnold and Alan, takes place on a giant double bed in a series of short revealing cross talking exchanges that don't quite ring true. As Arnold says "I wanted a husband, he wanted a wife". But in the third, Widows and children first!, he has written it almost as an American sitcom situated in Arnold's Manhattan two bed flat. 

The small acting space is very effectively used by designer Ryan Dawson Laight to create these locations although the constraints are obvious with the small spaces as door entrances within the flat. Lighting Designer James Whiteside's lighting also enhances the setting especially in the nightclub scenes . However sound designer Sebastian Frost and the cast can do nothing to disguise the frequent rumblings overhead from the trains out of Victoria which are a major distraction especially in the quieter more sensitive exchanges. Drew McOnie directs but does not solve the flaws in the edited version of the first two plays but certainly gets the best from the cast in the final one.

The first two acts serve to set up the characters and the situation and the play explodes into life in the third act when Arnold, his Jewish Ma and adopted son, David engage in some brilliantly written comic and dramatic exchanges that must have been ground breaking when originally written exploring what is to be gay, the reaction of a parent and the need for love and respect. Matthew Needham excels in this with tender, revealing and angry outbursts that feel truthful and heart felt in a way that he does not quite succeed as the drag queen performer of the first Act. His widowed mother, Bernice Stegers is wonderful as the tormented woman trying to understand and change her son. Jay Lycurgo is the sixteen year old gay adopted son, David grateful to be taken in, observing, even acting as a go between the adults and tellingly studying The Ballad of Reading Gaol. 

Dino Fetscher plays the bi sexual Ed torn between his love for his wife, Laurel
and his lust for Arnold and Daisy Boulton plays Laurel, the surprisingly understanding wife who seems to tolerate her husband's double life. In Play 2, Alan, a professional debut for Rish Shah, is the fourth member of the curious bed hopping scene. While societies attitudes and acceptance of these situations has relaxed since it was first written, the play's exploration of sexual identity and the need to be authentic to oneself has a timeless message for all. 

This is a promising start for Artistic Director Paul Taylor Mills and his new theatre setting out an ambitious intent and served by some very good performances in this opening play. The train rumblings may be insoluble but Battersea will be well served by this new venue.

Word of warning mind you heads in seat 1 of each row as the low electrical trunking has some nasty bolts protruding which have yet to be safely covered. 

Review by Nick Wayne 

Rating: ★★★★

Seat: Row F | Price of Ticket: £32

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