Mrs Chrisparkle and I have very fond memories of seeing Torch Song Trilogy in the 1980s. We were fortunate to see it during a brief period after Anthony Sher left the cast when the writer Harvey Fierstein took over the role. It was one of those evenings of dramatic enlightenment that hits you right between the eyes, and you emerge from the theatre a different person from the one who went in. I wondered if this new production would have lost any of that impact, or if it would have become slightly dated over the years. I’m delighted to say that it remains a landmark in 20th century drama and this is a vivid and satisfying production at the Menier.
That it definitely still packs a punch is helped enormously by Douglas Hodge’s vision and staging. The intimate setting of the Menier is the perfect place to look David Bedella’s Arnold right in the eyes and experience at least some of what he is going through. For the first part of the trilogy, the acting space is confined to a narrowish strip at the front of the stage and that closeness gives it an added sharpness. Having the Torch Songs sung by individual members of the cast, rather than the dedicated “Lady Blues” singer in the original, also involves the rest of the “team” more and gives it a greater sense of unity. For the second part the back wall retreats to reveal a vast bed on which all four bedtime-clad characters spend the entire act. I loved the way the characters moved around the bed and established themselves in different areas of it, occupying corners, sleeping alongside each other, and doing forward rolls from one side to another, all to emphasise the ménage-à-quatre aspect of the story, and it works ingeniously well. The stylised sudden and surprise ending is also very effective, juxtaposed as it is with an ironically funny song. For the final act, the wall has gone back even further to reveal a large kitchen diner and living room area giving plenty of space for all the characters to grapple with the ogre that is The Mother. The clear, simple and effective staging works a treat.
At the heart of the play is Arnold, and his journey through three stages of his life – meeting Ed; his relationship with Alan and how it intermingles with Ed and Laurel’s relationship; and his moving on later to foster and adopt David, tackling his relationship with his mother and with a possible hope of future happiness with Ed. The story is superbly crafted, the text snappy with New York Jewish humour, and David Bedella takes the part of Arnold as if born to it. From his first, larger-than-life appearance as the drag queen preparing to go on stage he is completely believable. His amazing full deep voice exudes natural confidence but is perfect for the pathos in scenes where he’s vulnerable and uncertain. I’ve yet to see Mr Bedella do anything less than a gutsy performance and he is, unsurprisingly, great.
In fact all the cast are excellent. Joe McFadden as Ed does a good line in boyish enthusiasm and his full-on crying is uncomfortably realistic. He’s an excellent foil to Mr Bedella as he can be both scene-stealing and quietly discreet in the shadows while Arnold’s character takes centre stage – the mark of a generous and thoughtful performance. Laura Pyper’s Laurel is the perfect match for Mr McFadden – lively and loving whilst he’s more coldly happy reading the paper and her growing resistance and antagonism to Arnold on that fateful weekend is amusingly done.
Tom Rhys Harries as Alan pouts extremely well as he kneels disconsolately on the bed and succeeds in getting a lot of humour out of the role. Perry Millward, as flamboyant foster son David, is great as an over the top (but not too much) teenager and he clearly shows the boy’s propensity to potential wildness but also genuine affection and thankfulness for Arnold and the home he has safely provided. The character does get a little irritating – as any similar 16 year old boy would be. He captures the essence of David really well.
The role of Arnold’s mother, the sympathetically named “Mrs Beckoff”, is a delight for an actress gifted in the use of the Jewish Sharp Tongue, and Sara Kestelman revels in it. It’s not a grotesque performance, it’s extremely realistic and all the more effective as a result. Very cleverly, as she spouts her anti-gay venom, you realise you still have some sympathy with her. She really shouldn’t say the things she says but she absolutely makes you understand her position. A beautifully subtle reading of the role – and she also sings the Torch Songs with superb emotion.
Given the production’s excellent attention to detail, two props irritated me because they were not in keeping with the time and the place. When Arnold and Laurel are doing the washing up you can clearly see that the plates have a “Churchill Made in England” stamp underneath – not impossible they would have Churchill plates, I grant you, but highly unlikely. Much worse was Arnold’s act one telephone – yes, it’s a nicely wall mounted round dial grey bakelite retro phone – but the number sticker on the dial is clearly British – with its reminder to dial 999 for Fire Police or Ambulance, and the visible phone number is a three-figure number on the Mostyn exchange, which I believe is in North Wales. You have to walk past the phone on the way in or out of the auditorium during the interval so it catches your eye and it really looks like a clumsy oversight in the Props department.
Nevertheless, this still very strong play is brilliantly realised with Douglas Hodge’s direction which, with some excellent performances makes this another winner for the Menier. Highly recommended.