I first saw Torch Song Trilogy - the movie - more than 20 years ago at the pre-rennovation and pre-extension Ritzy Cinema in Brixton. I have seen it several times since then and have never been able to imagine this story without Harvey Fierstein or Ann Bancroft taking the roles of Arnold and his mother. The voices, the facial expressions, the one-liners...for me, they are Arnold and his mother.
I saw the stage version for the first time recently at the Menier Chocolate Factory. Any worries I had about not being able to accept other actors in these roles were soon swept away, with outstanding performances from Sara Kestelman in the role of the mother and Perry Millward as David, the teenager who comes into Arnold's care, as well as an endearing performance from David Bedella as Arnold.
It took me a little time to settle into the stage play as my memories from the film are so vivid, but shortly through the first scene as Arnold is applying his "female impersonator" persona I began to be drawn in to this reading of the story. At least one "official" review of the play has remarked that the drag queen theme is dated and somehow irrelevant to the 21st century. Well I don't know about that but my reading of it was that Arnold was applying a mask that many gay men and women had (and have) to wear in order to survive. This theme continues throughout the play with the fresh faced Joe McFadden as Ed unable to remove his "mask" and face up to who he really is, whilst from a different perspective we see Arnold's mother desperate for her son to "...just not talk about it..."
Torch Song Trilogy is a bitter-sweet story with many moments of humour that had the audience roaring. The quick fire exchange between Arnold and his mother and Arnold and David stood out, and who could help but be amused by the mother's statement "If I had ever talked to my mother the way you just talked to me, you'd be looking at a woman with a size ten wedgie sticking out of her forehead". Class.
But there are lots of tears too. I always have to steel myself up for the cathartic confrontation between Arnold and his mother where all masks are finally stripped away as she gives voice to her real feelings that he has " a sickness" and that he caused his father's illness and death. Arnold's response is equally cathartic - he loves her but if she can't respect him she has no business being in his home. My friend Louise brought tissues because this part always make her cry. I first saw the movie with Louise all those years ago - she cried then too.
The David character was much more alive for me in this production than in the film. Zanily portrayed by Perry Millward who displayed the right mixture of bravado and vulnerability as the tough talking street kid, equally able to charm, annoy and amuse and to represent hope for the future.
I liked Douglas Hodge's direction. The Menier is an intimate venue and seemed right for this production, where we are in Arnold's changing room, in various bedrooms and in a bar where people don't go for the conversation. There were also some nice touches with pictures of Billie Holiday on Arnold's changing room mirror and the bunny rabbit slippers so loved from the movie, which are echoed in the apartment's wall paper! But Douglas, I preferred the songs in the movie - Arnold will forever remind me of Ella's recording of "This Time The Dreams On Me" - any chance of using it here?
Some of the press reviews of this production have been less than complementary, some suggesting that the theme of the play is outdated, that many of the issues it deals with are no longer problematical and that the world is more accepting and tolerant generally. It is certainly true that in many countries significant progress has been made, progress that was only dreamt about when this play was first performed. However, its also true that a member of the Italian football team can still say publicly that he hopes that there are no gay men in his team, its still possible for a gay man to be beaten to death crossing the Thames between the South Bank and the Embankment and of course its still possible to be beheaded, stoned to death, hung from a crane or thrown from cliffs in Iran, Saudi Arabia and a number of other countries.
One small complaint. The Menier had a full house which is good. The heat was searing. Good for recreating a New York summer for the setting of the play. Terrible for the audience. We need air cooling or it may be appropriate to stage only Tennessee Williams plays in future. Just a thought.