As an Aussie, there’s a mixture of trepidation and homesickness when you’re welcomed into a production with a Croc Dundee worthy ‘G-Day’, but that was just the start of the emotional rollercoaster that is Holding The Man which is a production that is as captivating as it is heartbreaking.
Holding The Man is the theatrical adaptation by Tommy Murphy of the memoirs of Timothy Conigrave, who details his journey with partner John Caleo, the star football player he fell in love with during high school. Directed by Gene David Kirk for Above the Stag Theatre, the play follows their tragically short lives, documenting the social and personal challenges they were faced with during their 15-year relationship, which ceased following John’s death at age 31 from AIDS-related illness.
The production is unapologetic and holds nothing back as it confronts homophobia and the cruel rejection experienced by both during the height of the HIV crisis. That said, the central premise is love and the piece is presented with humility and dignity, demonstrating the ability of love to surpass, hate, prejudice and, to an extent, even disease.
Andy Hill’s choice of music undeniably sets the scene and taking cues from both Priscilla Queen of the Desert and The Boy From Oz, the atmosphere is truly Australian. His choice of Peter Allen’s ‘Tenterfield Saddler’ during one of the most heart-breaking moments of the production ensured there was not a dry eye in the house.
That certainly wasn’t the only time I was moved to tears though, and in the time since leaving the theatre the tragedy of their short lives has stuck with me and continued to play on my mind, demonstrating the truth and devastating beauty within the piece.
In the lead role of Tim Conigrave, Jamie Barnard is superb. Faced with the challenge of a character who is at times impulsive and selfish, he brings a truth and humility to the role which evokes an empathetic response from the audience rather than one of judgement. The innocence he delivers in the earlier scenes ensure that the audience’s relationship with Tim is guaranteed and that we are invested in his success, failings, joy and devastation.
Barnard is matched perfectly by Ben Boskovic in the role of John. The calm and quietly gentle counterpart to Barnard’s forever restless Tim, Boskovic grounds the piece and their onstage relationship. His presence on stage is a stabilising influence and his own heartache and unwavering love provide a reason to care for the audience, maintaining the deeply human element that lies at the heart of the script.
The remaining cast vary in ability but all show a distinct level of versatility, switching between roles and playing cross-gender in many instances. As a whole, the ensemble is tight and has a sense of unity and chemistry on stage that ensure the piece progresses flawlessly.
Despite the current state of Australian politics and the palaver which surrounds the marriage equality debate, the text does give credit where credit is due and demonstrates the uniquely Australian response to the HIV crisis. With an influx of support networks and provision of support services to affected communities, the nation provided a leadership model for the rest of the world and is well represented within the production.
Holding the Man is not the easiest production to watch and, if my emotional hangover is anything to go by, will stay with you for quite some time afterwards. That said, stories of love and loss are what life is built on and this is a story that should be told more frequently for embodying both, and for serving as a reminder of where we’ve been a society, and how much further we have to go.
Review by Casandra Griffin
It’s the love of a lifetime: Holding The Man charts the relationship of Tim and John from the first bursts of college love to John’s eventual AIDS-related death.
Holding The Man has won multiple awards and has been a hit in its native Australia, here in the West End, and in the United States, as well as a film. Both comic and tragic, it’s a beautiful study of emotion and sexuality, and of the way a couple relate to each other and to the world around them.
Timothy Conigrave – Jamie Barnard
John Caleo – Ben Boskovic
Ensemble: Liam Burke, Joshua Coley, Annabel Pemberton, Rob Thompson, Faye Wilson
Director – Gene David Kirk
Designer – David Shields
Lighting designer – Jack Weir
Sound designer – Andy Hill
Production Manager – Andrew Beckett
Casting director – Harry Blumenau for Debbie O’Brien Casting
Stage managers – Andy Hill, Lucas Livesey
Holding The Man by Tommy Murphy
based on the memoir by Timothy Conigrave
Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes including interval