REVIEW: TORCH SONG (The Turbine Theatre) ★★★★★

Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song Trilogy is a collection of three one-act plays International Stud, Fugue in a Nursery, and Widows and Children First! The first of his trilogy, International Stud opened in 1978 at Off-Broadway’s Players Theatre, followed by Fugue in a Nursery and Widows and Children First! at Off-Off-Broadway’s La Mama in 1979. All three plays were then combined and presented as Torch Song Trilogy which opened on Broadway at the Little Theatre in 1982. Running for 1222 performances, Torch Song Trilogy won Firestein two Tony Awards for Best play and Best Actor in a Play, two Drama Desk Awards for Outstanding New Play and Outstanding Actor in a Play and the Theatre World Award. The first UK production opened in 1985 at Albery Theatre on St. Martin’s Lane where it ran for just over seven months and a feature film of Torch Song Trilogy was released in 1988, starring Fierstein and Matthew Broderick. Since then, numerous revivals have taken place before Firestein revised the play for a new Off-Broadway production in 2017. Titled simply Torch Song, this revival was shortened from it’s original four-hour long Trilogy and stared Michael Urie of Ugly Betty fame. Returning Fiersten’s work to the UK, the newly revised Torch Song is having it’s London premiere as the inaugural production launching Paul Taylor Mills’s new Turbine Theatre at Battersea Power Station.

Hilarious and heart-wrenching, Torch Song follows Arnold Beckoff’s search for love and acceptance, but as a gay man working as drag queen in 1970s New York City, neither seem to come easily. After a series of heartaches, Arnold believes he has found the love of his life in Alan and the couple make plans to adopt. But when tragedy strikes, Arnold’s life is shaken to its very core, leading to a confrontation with his overbearing mother. This dizzyingly funny and deeply touching landmark play is a portrait about the families we’re born into, the families we choose and the battles to bring them all home.

Directed by Drew McOnie, Turbine Theatre’s Torch Song features Matthew Needham (John Buchannan in Tennessee Williams’ Summer and Smoke, HBO’s Chernobyl, ITV’s Sandition) as Arnold, Daisy Boulton (Trouble In Mind, Present laughter, Shakespeare in Love, A View From the Bridge) as Laurel, Dino Fetscher (As Is, Ghost Stories, BBC’s Years and Years, Channel 4’s Humans, E4’s Banana) as Ed, Jay Lycurgo (BFI Network’s Farther of the Bride, BBC’s Doctors) as David, Rish Shah (Prank Me, Doctors, BBC’s Years and Years) as Alan and Bernice Stegers (Lost In Yonkers, Lady Windermere’s Fan, Eight Women, Four Weddings and a Funeral, BBC’s Tipping The Velvet, Netflix’s Last of the Tsars) as Ma.

As Laurel, Daisy Boulton performed the conflicted wife to bi-sexual Ed with aplomb and was easily able to explore the character fully bringing affection, jealousy and a sense of false courage to the character the audience could really feel for. As Alan, Rish Shah performed well with a subtle innocence in a world that forced him to grow up to quickly. This innocence and sense of fun easily made the audience fall for him which resulted in the final act of the play, Widows And Children First!, all the more tragic. Jay Lycurgo brings an intelligence to the character of David. Equal parts child-like and worldly, Lycurgo’s David fits into the world of the play effortlessly and is very believable as the reformed young son of Arnold. Bernice Stegers’ Ma is an affecting performance. With so much dialogue to deliver in the final act of the play, the audience needs to learn all about her in a short space of time and I feel Stegers rose to this challenge exquisitely. The chemistry between Stegers’ Ma and Matthew Needham’s Arnold was palpable and I found myself exasperated by and pitiful of Ma’s stubbornness and unwillingness to process grief in a healthy way. Dino Fetscher performed beautifully as Ed. Conflicted between what he thought was ‘right’, his love for wife Laurel and his love for Arnold, Fetscher portrayed a roller coast of emotion throughout in a very powerful performance. As Arnold, Matthew Needham was exquisite. Needham gave a brave, heart-felt, hilarious performance of a larger than life character who grows considerably throughout the course of the play. Making Arnold his own, Needham led the audience through the three sections of the play effortlessly and held the audience in his hand with a fully formed and very human portrayal.

Drew McOnie’s (King Kong, Strictly Ballroom, On The Town, The Wild Party) direction saw a smoothly running play with fast paced, snappy dialogue and clever use of the new Turbine Theatre space. Ryan Dawson Laight’s design used the small space very effectively, with neon signs displaying the three sections of the play International Stud, Fugue In A Nursery and Widows And Children First! and a small adaptable set which suited each act perfectly. Set above the rail line in an archway, the new Turbine Theatre is an intimate space with a small bar at the front, plenty of loos and a lovely mezzanine space to relax in before, at interval or after the show. Set right beside the river at the developing Battersea Power Station, the new Turbine Theatre is a lovely little venue I hope to re-visit a lot more in the future.

Torch Song is one of those must-see plays and I’m extremely happy Bill Kenwright and Paul Taylor-Mills chose it as the inaugural production at the new Turbine Theatre. Beautifully staged and performed by an extremely talented cast, this production of Torch Song is a hilarious and heart breaking portrait of love, loss, sexual identity and the deep longing for family approval that drives us all forward and drives us all crazy.

Reviewed by Stuart James
Photo: Mark Senior

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