It seems a lifetime ago. That sunlit gay upland when all the community had to worry about what what colour Lacoste shirt to don for tonight’s bar hopping, and whether Donna Summer would release an extended mix of "I Feel Love". Although claiming an honourable place in the canon of ‘gay theatre’ of the last century, 1982’s Torch Song Trilogy is an interesting choice for revival since unlike, say, My Night With Reg or Angels in America, it makes no reference to AIDS. Its polemic is thereby limited, but Torch Song spoke up for what thirty years later we now take for granted as legally-enshrined gay rights – recognition of stable relationships and the freedom to adopt children.
Harvey Fierstein, who celebrated his 70th birthday this month, achieved late-career successes by creating the role of Edna Turnblad in Hairspray The Musical and writing the book for both La Cage Aux Folles and this season’s Broadway opening Newsies. At a time when he had found it harder to get work, he wrote Torch Song as a vehicle for his personal talents as a performer and as a reaction to New York’s burgeoning moustache-and-check-shirt gay culture, which tended to ostracise feminine men and transvestites. In The Advocate, veteran drag artist Charles Busch wrote: "At the height of the post-Stonewall clone era, Harvey challenged both gay and straight audiences to champion an effeminate gay man's longings for love and family."
Although sometimes presented as three separate plays, here it is judiciously edited to three acts and one interval: first we meet wisecracking, self-deprecating drag queen Arnold Beckoff, styled by David Bedella as less strident and coarse than Fierstein himself: being more conventionally handsome also helps his engagement with the audience, identifying with his open-hearted vulnerability and simple yearning to be loved. He meets bisexual Ed, Joe McFadden, who combinines cuteness and intelligence in an un-edgy but wholly engaging performance, but Ed’s lack of confidence in his true sexuality eventually breaks Arnold’s heart. There’s true chemistry between the actors and all of the scenes between them are credible and well-rendered.
In the second act, we’re at Ed’s upstate farm where Arnold, with a new and disturbingly buff beau (too weakly sketched by Tom Rhys Harries) in tow, is visiting Ed and wife Laurel (pert and understanding Laura Pyper). It’s a heavily stylized scene set on a huge bed with all parties dressed in white and performing an acrobatic ‘La Ronde’ of liaisons which cross gender and sexualities until everyone’s had everyone else, at least conversationally. You could feel the audience’s attention drift.
The final act is the most enjoyable, despite its sitcom familiarity, in that it introduces the two best-drawn characters: knowing and sassy would-be adoptee and ‘troubled teen’ David, played with immaculate comic timing by Perry Millward, and a celestial star turn from Sara Kestleman as Mrs Beckoff, the pure embodiment of Jewish matriarchal contradictions, loving her son but brutally failing to understand his most fundamental trait.
Soutra Gilmour's brilliant and fluidly-moving set cleverly floats the scenes in a timeless zone between then and now, particularly the Brooklyn loft apartment which could be contemporary Williamsburg. Perhaps nostalgic for his own Cage aux Folles tour-de-force, Douglas Hodge’s direction seems over-fond and too variably paced, delivering a yorkshire pudding of a playwhere the two outer acts are significantly more crisp and delicious than the soggy and unrisen middle.
But even though the play pushes no envelope, the central roles are so beautifully acted by Bedella and McFadden, and with the distribution of the eponymous 'torch songs' to all of the cast it’s a good production. At the sweet and sentimental climax there were many ‘gentlemen who moisturise’ in the audience who found it necessary to brush away a tear. Not ashamed to be among them.