‘Torch Song’ review

Theatre, Drama
4 out of 5 stars
Torch Song, Turbine Theatre
© Mark Senior Matthew Needham (Arnold)

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

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The Turbine Theatre opens with a resonant production of Harvey Fierstein’s gay classic

Like Arnold, the gay, Jewish drag queen at its centre, Harvey Fierstein’s LGBTQ+ classic ‘Torch Song’ is anxious and wistful. The writing spills over with rapid-fire patter. It’s also full of heart and hope.

Best known for its longer 1978 incarnation, ‘Torch Song Trilogy’, this new take is based on Fierstein’s own cut-down version, which was first performed off-Broadway in 2017. Here, it kicks off the inaugural season of the Turbine Theatre, in an archway in the shiny new Battersea Power Station development.

The original trilogy of plays lend their titles to the three acts: ‘International Stud’, ‘Fugue in a Nursery’ and ‘Widows and Children First!’ We first encounter Arnold talking about the impossibility of finding love in a gay bar in 1970s New York, followed by Ed, a bisexual man, attempting to navigate who he is through darkroom hook-ups.

We witness their meeting in the first person, as each character directly addresses the audience. From there, ‘Torch Song’ follows their tumultuous connection through Ed’s decision to pursue a heterosexual relationship, a brutal tragedy in Arnold’s life, and the tentative beginnings of something new.

The cast beautifully sell Fierstein’s deep dive into the fragile but enduring spark of love. Matthew Needham is magnetic as a spiky, raw Arnold, chucking out cynical asides like a stand-up while exposing every bruised nerve-ending. Dino Fetscher, meanwhile, gives us an endearingly bewildered Ed, often confounded by himself.

While there’s strong work from Daisy Boulton and Bernice Stegers as Ed’s girlfriend and Arnold’s mother, they’re more like cameos. In some ways, from its language to some of its tropes, ‘Torch Song’ is very much rooted in its time – a bulb-flash snapshot of a lost New York City. But it’s also extraordinarily progressive in its willingness to explore Ed’s sexual identity without censor or lazy closure.

Director Drew McOnie splashes his production in neon-lit colour, punctuates it with disco and really goes for the laughs. Needham is hilarious as Arnold heroically attempts polite conversation during a backroom shag. Now, viewed through the lens of the ’80s Aids crisis, this slapstick vision of sex feels almost wistfully playful.

The shadow of the decade that would follow inevitably hangs over ‘Torch Song’. But what endures is its sense of optimism that a better future is possible. Watching Ed starting to entertain the possibility of a different model for family life with Arnold and his foster son, David (an energetic Jay Lycurgo making his stage debut), resonates powerfully into the twenty-first century.  

By: Tom Wicker



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