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Holding the Man

  • Theatre, Drama
  • 4 out of 5 stars
  • Recommended
  1. Holding the Man at Belvoir
    Photograph: Belvoir/Brett Boardman
  2. Holding the Man at Belvoir St Theatre
    Photograph: Belvoir/Brett Boardman
  3. Holding the Man at Belvoir
    Photograph: Belvoir/Brett Boardman
  4. Holding the Man at Belvoir
    Photograph: Belvoir/Brett Boardman
  5. Holding the Man at Belvoir
    Photograph: Belvoir/Brett Boardman
  6. Holding the Man at Belvoir
    Photograph: Belvoir/Brett Boardman
  7. Holding the Man at Belvoir
    Photograph: Belvoir/Brett Boardman
  8. Holding the Man at Belvoir
    Photograph: Belvoir/Brett Boardman
  9. Holding the Man at Belvoir
    Photograph: Belvoir/Brett Boardman
  10. Holding the Man at Belvoir
    Photograph: Belvoir/Brett Boardman

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

With dynamic performances at its core, Eamon Flack breathes new life into this achingly beautiful true love story set during the height of the HIV/AIDS crisis

At first glance, Tommy Murphy’s adaptation of activist and actor Tim Conigrave’s achingly beautiful memoir, Holding the Man, seems to have all the ingredients of a classic AIDS parable: young love defying the heteronormative status quo; young life cruelly stolen by a merciless disease. And yet, following its premiere by Sydney’s Griffin Theatre Company in 2006 – and despite a popularity with audiences that saw it transfer to the Sydney Opera House before becoming a film – this play suffered accusations of not doing enough to confront the political and social alienation that failed Australia’s earliest victims of the HIV/AIDS crisis. And this would arguably be true, if such ends were ever Conigrave’s, or indeed Murphy’s, intention.

The biggest clue that those criticisms are off-target comes in the play’s closing seconds, as the audience is told of the memoir’s dedication – “For John” – a tribute to the man Tim Conigrave loved for more than half his life until John’s AIDS-related death on January 26, 1992 at the age of 31. In these two words, the truth of Holding the Man is revealed. This is not a political act in the same vein as William Hoffman’s trailblazing As Is or Tony Kushner's epic masterpiece Angels In America – plays that howl for justice, that hold a mirror up to the ugliness of society’s apathy, that pitch their dramatis personae as agents of change. Holding the Man is an honestly drawn lived experience – joyous, devastating, deeply intimate, but crucially, unbound by any imposed moral mission. Or, as Conigrave put it, “the sex-death-horror thing”. 

...speak[s] to our enduring, human need for compassion, community and laughter, even on our bleakest days.

This is something Belvoir St Theatre's Artistic Director Eamon Flack clearly understands as he takes the reins for this new production. His uplifting, playful, at times raucous production teems with physical and character comedy as we follow Tim and John’s burgeoning romance and their sexual awakening as classmates in 1970s Melbourne, the conflicted complexities of their desires as they enter their university years, and their discovery of the LGBT community on their way to adulthood. Murphy stays true to his source material, resisting any attempts to fill in the blanks beyond Conigrave’s subjective viewpoint. This inevitably means we see the various characters through Tim’s eyes, not as they truly were but as he remembers them. John Caleo – played here by Danny Ball in a smouldering yet stoic performance – is idealised as virtuous, constant, sometimes introverted, but always a devoted partner. Meanwhile, John’s boorish father is one-dimensionally blunt and unfeeling. Again, issues of shallow or incomplete characterisations have long dogged this play, but Flack uses this to his advantage, keeping the action relentlessly nimble while amping up some of the peripheral characters to near-cartoonish extremes. 

There’s a risk that leaning into the LOLs like this could make the far darker tones of the play’s second half overly jarring. However, Flack has assembled a terrific cast who can turn on a pinhead from the ridiculous to the sublime. Russel Dykstra, Rebecca Massey, Shannen Alyce Quan and Guy Simon display masterful feats of theatrical gymnastics (aided by a seemingly endless supply of quick changes and wigs) as they hopscotch between roles as remote as horny teens in a circle jerk to doctors delivering a positive HIV test result.

These dynamic, racing performances orbit the play’s emotional and narrative centres of gravity. As Tim, Tom Conroy delivers an account of effortless sincerity, beautifully counterpointing Tim’s cheek and charm – his headstrong flamboyance and pursuit of sexual wants tempered with moments of heartbreaking vulnerability. But it’s the connection between Conroy and Ball that galvanisies every element of this production. They share an electric chemistry that breathes such persuasive life into Tim and John’s love for one another, it is the foundation upon which every success of this show is built.

Indeed, the performances are tasked with all the heavy lifting in a staging (designed by Stephen Curtis) as lean as anything I’ve ever seen on Belvoir’s stage – featuring little more than a wall of retro wallpaper, some mid-century sofas and a handful of disco balls. It’s truly a credit to the cast that despite such streamlined resources, there’s never a moment that feels theatrically shortchanged. 

It’s been 30 years since Conigrave completed his watershed memoir about his 15-year romance with John, succumbing to an AIDS-related illness just ten days later in the spring of 1994. The reality for LGBTQIA+ folk today – legal same-sex marriage, the mainstreaming of queer culture and the threat of HIV transmission virtually eradicated in Australia thanks to readily accessible medications – may be a universe away from Conigrave’s experience, but Holding the Man remains relevant in other ways. Perhaps the most strikingly resonant aspect is the way in which, even during a time when homosexuality was far from accepted, these two men were so loved. Their allies – including parents who, while conflicted about their child’s sexuality, still stayed with them in their dying hours – speak to our enduring, human need for compassion, community and laughter, even on our bleakest days.

Holding the Man is playing at Belvoir St Theatre, Surry Hills, until April 14, 2024. Tickets range from $39-$95 and you can snap them up over here.


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Maxim Boon
Written by
Maxim Boon


Opening hours:
Tue-Wed 6.30pm, Thu-Sat 7.30pm + Thu 1pm, Sat 2pm, Sun 5pm
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