My heart was fit to burst when the Menier Chocolate Factory announced both Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song Trilogy and Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along as part of their new season. I have such fond memories of the original London production of Fierstein’s linked triptych of plays, having caught the great man himself in the central role of drag queen and eternal optimist Arnold, before hysteria about AIDS caused the premature closure of both this and the Fierstein scripted La Cage Aux Folles. It also managed the often difficult transformation into a very different but equally successful film, with Fierstein again taking the lead. Then came dark murmurs of a shorter, more “experimental” version taking shape in Southwark and I started having sleepless nights worrying at what might have befallen my beloved Arnold. It was with some trepidation that we descended on south London on a stormy June evening, having taken advantage of the Chocolate Factory’s “meal deal”, where you get dinner and a show for a bargain £32.50 during previews, £37 during the main run.
I am happy to report that my fears were unfounded. There has been some judicious editing to reduce the original four hour running time to a more audience friendly two and a half hours and the scene linking titular “torch songs”, previously performed by a cabaret singer removed from the main action, are now sung by the cast accompanied by a harpist. This simple device works exceptionally well and gives the songs added poignancy, accentuating what has happened and hinting at what is to come. I would have loved to have witnessed Harvey Fierstein tackling Someone to Watch Over Me in his fabulously raspy Brooklyn tones.
David Bedella, more usually associated with musicals, assumes the mantle of Arnold and we follow roughly five years in his life and his relationships with his two lovers Ed, a bisexual teacher, and Alan, a much younger model; Ed’s eventual wife, Laurel; David a gay teenage tearaway and Arnold’s mother who would prefer not to have to acknowledge her son’s sexuality.
David Bedella sets the tone from the first scene as, addressing the audience conspiratorially and with the help of heavy make-up, a wig, a red sequinned evening gown and matching heels, he transforms from Arnold into Virginia Ham, “an entertainer”. The audience are on his side within seconds and the transformation gets a well deserved round of applause. Joe McFadden’s Ed is sexy, confident but, unlike Arnold, uncomfortable in his own skin and he brings just the right amount of charm with a hint of self-loathing to what must be an difficult character to play, as we watch Arnold falling head over heels for him while he keeps Arnold at arm’s length until it suits him otherwise.
The second act, which takes place entirely on a huge bed, examines the ramifications of an awkward weekend spent in the country by two couples. Arnold is newly loved up with Tom Rhys Harries’s super cute Alan, the product of a troubled past who has used sex as a tool the whole of his short life, and Ed is partnered to a woman, Laurel. Laura Pyper’s Laurel is spot-on, obsessed with her man’s past and desperate to know every detail no matter how painful it is to all concerned.
The third act sees Arnold’s mother, played by Sara Kestelman, visiting from Florida and finding Arnold sharing his flat with newly separated Ed and 15 year-old David. Despite appearing in only this third act, Perry Millward walks away with the acting honours as young David, who Arnold hopes to eventually adopt. Millward has a swagger and vulnerability coupled with great comic timing that gets right to the heart of why Arnold would do anything for this boy and contrasts sharply with the relationship with his own mother, which uncomfortably implodes in a spate of inter-generational arguments before our eyes.
One tiny quibble which may be entirely unjustified and I apologise in advance if it is, the key line in the movie for me, which may not be in the original play, has Arnold’s mother exclaiming “you cut me out of your life and then blamed me for not being there”. This single line suddenly elicits huge sympathy for what has been up until that point an unsympathetic character and lets us see things from her perspective. It’s not in this production and I wish it was.
Cleverly and unlike the Chocolate Factory’s current hit transfer of Abigail’s Party, the designers have chosen not to anchor the play in the time in which it was written. Set and costumes are ambivalent, receding whitewashed brick walls, the odd poster of Judy Garland, Billie Holliday, Cabaret and, in a nod to Mr Fierstein who was in the original production, Andy Warhol’s Pork. Even the hysterical first act “back room” scene could be happening just down the road in Vauxhall (so I’m led to believe).
Because of the great affection with which I hold both the original production and the film, which I must have watched at least 20 times (I know, nerd, get a life), I was worried that I would be disappointed. How wrong I was, this revival proves what a timeless piece of theatre Harvey Fierstein created and director Douglas Hodge has proved that the universal themes of friendship, love and being honest and true to yourself are just as relevant today as they were in the supposedly less enlightened times of 30 years ago. David Bedella is mesmerising in the central role of Arnold, simply wanting to love and be loved, and proves that he's not only a musical theatre star but is just as fine a dramatic and comedy actor, bringing true emotional depth to the role. This really is one revival you will want not to miss, I will definitely be returning.
Booking until 12 August 2012, a beautifully realised production of a theatrical masterpiece - Torch Song Trilogy