A powerful Torch Song marks opening of London’s newest theatre

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Torch Song (by Harvey Fierstein): The Turbine Theatre, London, 6.9.2019. (CSa)

Matthew Needham (Arnold) and Dino Festcher (Ed) in Torch Song
(c) Mark Senior


Director – Drew McOnie
Designer – Ryan Dawson Laight
Lighting designer – James Whiteside


Arnold – Matthew Needham
Laurel – Daisy Boulton
Ed – Dino Fetscher
David – Jay Lycurgo
Alan – Rish Shah
Ma – Bernice Stegers

Electricity is once again being generated from (or more precisely next to) the decommissioned Battersea Power Station – specifically Drew McOnie’s high voltage production of Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song. This paired down version, which played to great acclaim on Broadway last year, has been chosen to mark the opening of the new Turbine Theatre in the heart of one of the South Bank’s most recent commercial developments. The intermittent rumbling of overground trains can be heard over the Turbine’s small brick cellar auditorium and pocket handkerchief stage. This gives Torch Song, Fierstein’s semi-autobiographical account set in pre-AIDS New York in the late 1970s, an added gritty authenticity.

Torch Song tells the story of Arnold, lovesick, wise-cracking drag queen whose stage names include Bertha Vanation and Virginia Ham. Yet behind the make-up and the brittle banter, Arnold (outstandingly well played by stick-thin Matthew Needham) is touchingly vulnerable, yearning for requited love from the right man. ‘I want more out of life than meeting a pretty face and sitting on it.’

Play One, entitled International Stud, is set in a gaudily lit Greenwich Village gay bar of the same name. There, Arnold encounters Ed, a brawny, charming bisexual teacher with a Freddie Mercury moustache, played with searing honesty by Dino Fetscher. Their fortuitous meeting does not stop Arnold seeking hot sex in the club’s dark back room, where, in a scene both horrifying and hilarious, he feigns bored indifference at the receiving end of a simulated act of anonymous penetration. ‘A thing of beauty is a joy till sunrise’, he later quips.

Arnold and Ed’s passionate affair meets an obstacle when Ed informs Arnold that he is going to marry open-minded Laurel (Daisy Boulton). This triggers a romance between Arnold and street-wise model and former hustler Alan (Rish Shah). The play’s momentum slows and credibility is stretched a little in the second part. Tellingly entitled Fugue in the Nursery, we see the four characters interweaving with one another – for the most part in a huge bed – during a weekend together at Ed and Laurel’s country place. Somewhat improbably, the straight Laurel is happy to countenance sharing her husband-to-be with his former gay lover without so much as a complaint.

Play Three – Widows and Children First – set several years on in Arnold’s neat New York apartment, is the strongest and funniest of the Trilogy. Arnold is now a single father raising 16-year-old gay teenager David (Jay Lycurgo in a striking professional debut) when Arnold’s larger than life mother or ‘Ma’  (the magnificent Bernice Stegers) comes to visit from Florida. In dialogue bristling with Wildean epigrams of the Yiddish variety, Stegers, with perfect comic timing, gives us an East Side Lady Bracknell. Ma kvells, kvetches, nudges, and dispenses her maternal advice like unwanted chicken soup. ‘You want a meaningful conversation?’ she asks her tormented son, before answering with a shrug ‘Do what I do, talk to yourself. It’s the only way’. In contrast, Fierstein’s kindly characters talk to us directly from the heart, giving this compassionate 1980s drama a fresh and compelling relevance.

Chris Sallon

For more about Torch Song at The Turbine Theatre click here.

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