Darlinghurst Theatre Company revives Harvey Fierstein's beloved classic
It’s been four decades since the first part of Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song Trilogy (called International Stud) premiered Off-Off Broadway, introducing the world to Arnold, a gay Jewish drag queen living in New York who dreams of finding love and family. He was a character written with the complexities usually not given to queer characters in 1978 and one whose aspirations – for children and a long-lasting love – were pretty unusual at that point.
A lot has changed across the world in the 40 years since Torch Song was born – although the fear and backlash triggered by HIV/AIDS in the years following was a significant hurdle. And a lot has changed locally in the five years since Darlinghurst Theatre Company first staged the play; not only has the company moved from its former home on Greenknowe Avenue (now the Hayes Theatre) to the gorgeous Eternity Playhouse, but long-term, committed same-sex relationships are now given the same legal recognition as heterosexual partnerships. Arnold would be thrilled, and not just because he might be finally be able to convince his prickly mother that his life is worthy of her respect.
Fierstein’s trilogy of plays – presented across nearly four hours with two intermissions – were brought together in 1981 and finally made it to Broadway in 1982. Fierstein became a star playing Arnold, who falls in love with a bisexual school teacher called Ed. At the end of the first play, Ed has walked out, but he comes back into Arnold’s life in the second, bringing his very understanding wife, Laurel, along with him. By the third, Arnold is approaching fatherhood but a visit from his mother proves to be particularly disruptive to that process.
It mightn’t feel as urgent as it once did, which means the bits that drag or feel repetitive are particularly noticeable, but director Stephen Colyer and his superb cast have created a production that’s packed full of life and is engaging for its full running time. We might’ve now seen the kind of parent-child conflict that plays out in the third part many times before, but there’s enough power and insight to keep the stakes high and the (slightly dated) zingers zinging.
Colyer uses music, and some appropriately glamorous musical theatre imagery, to drive and reflect upon the action, with Phil Scott musically directing from a grand piano at the back of the stage, confidently tackling everything from Gershwin to a jazzy take on one of Pink’s ballads. It also looks brilliant, with a set by Imogen Ross that transforms across the three acts, under Benjamin Brockman’s lighting, from 1970s backstage glamour to something more domestic. The play itself adjusts its own language and style as it moves through the various stages of Arnold’s life – it starts with an extended monologue, but the world becomes more populated as his life becomes messier and fuller. Colyer tracks these shifts with plenty of theatricality.
Leading this production is Simon Corfield, who returns to the role after playing Arnold in Colyer’s 2013 production. Although he mirrors Fierstein’s trademark vocal rasp a little too closely in the first part, he eventually settles in and finds his own take on the character’s desperation.
Tim Draxl is perfectly cast as Ed, the slightly uptight teacher and object of Arnold’s affections, and he sings a gorgeous rendition of ‘The Man That Got Away’. Hilary Cole is luminous as both the mysterious torch singer – with sensitive and spectacular singing, she’s almost a connection to the divine for the gay men of this play – and as the slightly more down-to-earth Laurel. Stephen Madsen brings Alan to life with nuance and integrity, while Imraan Daniels has an appropriately youthful energy as David. Kate Raison is wonderfully acerbic as Arnold’s mother, revealing more depth than you initially expect, even if she never quite steps outside of the Jewish mother archetype.
In the hands of a less astute director or cast, Torch Song Trilogy could easily feel like a museum piece. But when the performances are this fine, it’s impossible not to be transported to Arnold’s world and experience the heartbreak, joy and defiant richness of his life.