With his seminal descriptions of the Weimar Republic, Christopher Isherwood is lauded as being one of the great writers of the twentieth Century. But it is his meditative novel ‘A Single Man’ in which he believed he came the closest to what he wanted to achieve. Over the course of 24 hours, George, a 58-year-old gay Englishman and professor living in Los Angeles ambles through his everyday tasks and interactions, all the while continuing to mourn the recent loss of his long-term partner Jim who died in a car accident.
In Simon Reade’s adaptation, directed by Philip Wilson, George’s life is sepia in tone. Choked with grief, his experiences are dulled out to become colourless. In University lectures, he teaches the literary greats with passion, but his words fall largely on deaf – or at least, immature – ears. At home, his morning routine has a nagging sense of sullenness. With the prime of his life behind him, George is an animal battered; and the constant passing of time is forever at the forefront of his mind. ‘I’m afraid of being rushed,’ he glumly admits.
Theo Fraser Steele channels the essence of Colin Firth’s take on George in Tom Ford’s 2010 film version and feels entirely natural for it. Always slightly withdrawn, there is careful hesitation in each of his exchanges. Yet, despite his natural urge to remain unsociable and alone with his ever-ticking thoughts, there is wry wit to his speech. With his back straightened and a traditional English awkwardness, Steele’s playing of a perfected public face never allows us to forget George’s concealed and constant heartache.
This inner turmoil and sorrow is seen most distinctly in his fleeting meetings. There’s the student, Kenny (Miles Molan) who is rivetted by George and starts to reawaken his deadening sexual desire. A dying friend cooped up in a hospital room, who makes him consider the potential of his own lonely death. An evening spent with an old friend Charley – played so richly by Olivia Darnley that you almost forget she’s fiction – forces him to confront the constant pain of an unfulfilled future.
But despite the compelling performances and the lasting tenderness of Isherwood’s narrative, Wilson’s production still feels distant. The sound effects that support the drama feel amateurish and push us away from the real heart of what happens onstage. Caitlin Abbott’s grey, bare set is an attempt to mirror George’s solitude but ends up swallowing much of the action we see. With its centre on ageing and the uncontrollability of death as relevant today as ever, it is a loss that we don’t find this production breathtaking.