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A Single Man at Park Theatre

Christopher Isherwood is probably best known as the writer of the 1930s novel Goodbye To Berlin which forms the source for the musical Cabaret. He is a gay icon whose life and work continues to inspire people throughout the world. Leaving England in 1939 he escaped to America where he found work as a scriptwriter in Hollywood alongside Aldous Huxley. He became a US Citizen in 1946. During this post-war period, he experimented with drugs, became a Hindu and embraced the counter-culture. He wrote A Single Man in 1964, dedicating the novel to another gay icon, Gore Vidal. He died in 1986 aged 82.

Theo Fraser Steele - Photographer Mitzide Margary.
Theo Fraser Steele – Photographer Mitzide Margary.

Clearly autobiographical A Single Man is about Christopher Isherwood in California, Santa Monica to be precise. Isherwood becomes George (Theo Fraser Steele) in the play who has lost his lover Jim who has died in a car crash. George now faces the reality of life as a lonely ageing man (he’s 58) surrounded by his bigoted heterosexual neighbours and the indifferent students he lectures on English Literature. Like Joyce’s Ulysses, the action takes place over 24 hours. So we see a day in the life of George but also a life in one day, as it were. Just as Joyce made a day in Dublin correspond to the events of Homer’s Ulysses so Isherwood makes a parallel between a day in Santa Monica and the Hindu epic the Bhagavad Gita. During the course of the day, George goes through the life course. He is an elderly man in the morning, a mature man at noon, a youth in the afternoon and a baby at night. So in one sense, he is a single man representing the seven ages of man. But also on another level, he is a universal man because the cosmic idea of reincarnation gives George a connection to all men everywhere both now in the past and in the future. So Isherwood is not shy of making big claims for his novel, The ambition is impressive and certainly thought-provoking. Despite such undoubtedly rich materials somehow this version of the novel doesn’t catch fire. Why is this?

It may be that A Single Man doesn’t work as a play. It’s a novel that works on the page as an intimate experience between author and reader but doesn’t work as a play. The mystical cum philosophical yearnings of the novel don’t work well as spoken drama because we have no time to absorb and think about the words. Reading the novel the reader can stop and go over words and sentences. In the theatre, lines come thick and fast as there is too much to take on. Moreover, I think the adapter Simon Reade and director Philip Wilson have fallen between two stools. Unsure whether to emphasise the gay aspects or the mystical aspects they overcomplicate matters so that I for one felt unsure of what they were wanting us to see. Too many scenes left me feeling so what? Really? Are you sure? Time and again seemingly set-piece key conversations are laboriously set up but then an anti-climax. Nothing happens. It’s yet another non sequiter. Now Isherwood and Reade may see a cosmic significance in two men swimming (no doubt it refers to the sea as the origins of life and cleansing the body) but to most members of the audience, it’s just two blokes having a dip after a few too many drinks. Again this is something that works as a novel but not on stage. There are too many episodes like this.

But perhaps the biggest misstep is the relationship between George and his student Kenny (Miles Milan). Such relationships are now highly problematic if not predatory. It’s difficult to feel sympathy for a 58-year-old professor having a relationship with a 20-year-old student. No doubt Isherwood felt back in 1964 that he was breaking down barriers but for us in 2022 that is seen in a very different light. As this is the key relationship in the play it undermines the whole basis of the drama. I was not willing to suspend disbelief.

Where I thought the play worked well was in the, as it were, subplots. Indeed Olivia Darnley is so tremendous as Charley that she is in danger of making it a tale about A Single Woman. The dinner party she arranges for George is straight out of Abigail’s Party. I was struck by the recurring idea of characters searching for something. So George is looking for a substitute for Jim. Kenny is searching for a father. Charley is trying to find a replacement for her son who has flown the nest. In these moments the play comes very close to demonstrating the Hindu ideas of eternal recurrence and reincarnation. The Ground Hog Day repetitive elements in the play are well done. The business of getting out of bed, going to the toilet, getting dressed – all this is done with Beckett-like attention to detail.

3 Star Review

California, 1962. College professor George is grieving the death of his long-term partner Jim. As a middle-aged gay Englishman living in the Los Angeles suburbs, he is an outsider in every way. Haunted by his past and unable to move forward, we follow him on one very ordinary day. But for George, this is going to be a day like no other…

Troupe in association with Park Theatre presents
A Single Man
Based on the book by Christopher Isherwood
Adapted by Simon Reade
Directed by Philip Wilson


Plays: 19 Oct – 26 Nov 2022

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  • John OBrien

    JOHN O’BRIEN born in London in 1960 is a born and bred Londoner. His mother was an illiterate Irish traveller. His early years were spent in Ladbroke Grove. He was born at number 40 Lancaster Road. In 1967 the family was rehoused in Hackney. He attended Brooke House School for Boys in Clapton, - as did Lord Sugar. He became head boy and was the first person in his family to make it to university, gaining a place at Goldsmiths College in 1978. He took a degree in Sociology and a PGCE . From 1982 until 1993 he taught at schools in Hackney and Richmond. In 1984-85 he attended Bristol University where he gained a Diploma in Social Administration. From 1985 until 1989 he studied part-time in the evenings for a degree in English Literature at Birkbeck College. He stayed on at Birkbeck from 1990-1992 to study for an MA in Modern English Literature. He left teaching in 1993 and has worked as a tutor, researcher, writer and tour guide. He leads bespoke guided tours on London’s history, art , architecture and culture. He has attended numerous courses at Oxford University - Exeter College, Rewley House & Kellogg College. In London, he attends courses at Gresham College, The National Gallery, The British Museum, The Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, The British Academy and The Royal Society. Read the latest London theatre reviews by all reviewers.

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