Harvey Fierstein’s semi-autobiographical, Tony award-winning play Torch Song seems to have been around forever. It was originally three one-act plays International Stud, Fugue In A Nursery and Widows And Children First!, the first of which was produced off-Broadway in 1978. Then in 1981, the three became one in Torch Song Trilogy starring Fierstein as the thinly disguised drag queen “Arnold Beckoff”. The play was over fours long and in 2017 a significantly revised version was cut down by the author to a more manageable two and a half hours and that’s the version that’s on at London’s latest off-West End theatre, The Turbine in its revitalised Battersea Power Station location.
Torch Song tells Arnold’s story from his life as a needy drag queen in a seedy New York club through to becoming the foster parent of a gay teenager and all his existential angst along the way. Arnold desperately needs to be loved, be it by his lovers, his foster son and most importantly by his mother.
Arnold is waspish with a rapier-like tongue that rips people apart but underneath that sarcastic outer-shell, is a vulnerable, compassionate and decidedly unhappy gay New Yorker who won’t let people close to him see what he’s really like beneath the mask.
As Fierstein is so closely associated with the role which apart from performing on stage, he also played the part in the 1988 movie version, it’s difficult not to hear echoes of his characterisation and distinctive voice in Arnold but Matthew Needham makes the part his own. His tall, almost emaciated figure (we see a lot of it during the play) makes us forget Fierstein completely and Needham who’s on stage almost throughout the piece gives us a thoughtful, provocative Arnold whose character develops as his story unfolds. He makes us laugh (a lot) and we feel for what he’s going through – this is potentially an award-winning performance – his opening monologue is an acting masterclass.
Unfortunately, some of the other characters disappoint a little in comparison and it’s not until the third act when Jay Lycurgo appears as David (Arnold’s foster son) that there’s a performance that isn’t overshadowed by Needham’s. The biggest disappointment is Bernice Sterger as Ma who’s “kvetching” (Yiddish for complaining) lacks a bit of the “chutzpah” (audacity) the part of the “balabusta” (powerful Jewish Mother) the part needs – it’s just a bit “meh” (ordinary).
Director Drew McOnie directs with a firm hand and the action on the theatre’s small stage never flags. He’s helped by Ryan Dawson Laight’s excellent design which takes us from a drag queen’s dressing room to a seedy New York gay bar before transforming into a bedroom (where there’s very clever use of a large bed) before turning into Arnold’s tiny New York apartment where most of the action in act three takes place. There’s also clever use of neon signs designating which play of the original trilogy we’re watching.
Overall this is an excellent production of a classic piece of theatre. One frustration for this critic is that whilst Fierstein’s wonderful funny lines had the audience (and me) laughing out loud, the pathos of the third act didn’t have me shedding a tear or two and I think it should have. It had a lot for the head – it just lacked a little for the heart.
However, this production of Torch Song is an excellent (if not that adventurous) choice for the first production in a brand-new theatre and it should put bums on seats – providing the audience can find the theatre itself (it’s a little tucked away behind the power station). New theatres can only be a benefit to the cultural fabric of the capital so let’s hope that Artistic Director Paul Taylor Mills gets his programming right and The Turbine is a big success for everyone concerned.
Review by Alan Fitter
The Turbine Theatre’s inaugural season opens with TORCH SONG, a new revival of Harvey Fierstein’s dizzyingly funny and deeply touching landmark play, directed by Olivier Award-winning Drew McOnie (King Kong, Strictly Ballroom, On The Town).
The groundbreaking and Tony Award-winning story of drag queen Arnold Beckoff and his quest for true love in 1970s Manhattan is a hilarious and heartbreaking portrait of love, loss, sexual identity and the deep longing for family approval that drives us all forward, and drives us all crazy.
Running Time: 2 Hours 30 Minutes – Including Interval
The Turbine Theatre
Arches Lane, Circus West Village, London, SW11 8AB