Manuel Puig’s love story began life as a novel in 1976. It has been turned into a play, the hit 1985 movie and a Tony-award-winning musical by Kander and Ebb. Now it returns to the stage in this new version by Jose Rivera and Allan Baker.
Sensitively directed by Laurie Sansom, and irradiated by two piercing performances from Samuel Barnett and Declan Bennett, this adaptation eschews the stylistic variety of the book in favour of a distilled and very moving concentration on the essence of the relationship between the two men at the story’s centre.
Set in the hellhole of an Argentine prison cell, this production brings out the emotional delicacy of what the pair discover about themselves and about the nature of love and power, as they endure the humiliations thrown at them by repressive authority.
Pushing beyond stereotype, the show establishes that both these mismatched men find solace in their dreams. Barnett’s brittle, wounded, playful Molina – the window dresser jailed for being gay – escapes by recounting the plots of his favourite films (Panther Woman, a Nazi propaganda movie et al) which appear here in crackly, silhouetted projections on the walls.
Valentin derides his cellmate for being an incurable, apolitical romantic, but Declan Bennett’s performance beautifully shows the painful honesty with which this testy communist guerilla admits to some of the willed delusions and skewed relationships that underlie his social idealism.
The characters’ effort to understand each other is communicated with a growing and completely plausible tenderness here, given the unforced and exquisite interplay between the actors.
Bennett makes you feel the vulnerability behind Valentin’s political slogans, Barnett the excruciation of Molina’s compromised position as the informer who is trying to the string the authorities along.
The plotting is not watertight. Wouldn’t a hardened activist such as Valentin, whose body bears the marks of brutal torture, begin to smell a rat when he gets sick after eating prison food?
But the realisation that in the microcosm of the prison cell they are paradoxically free to express themselves as they wish – and that what passes for human communication is generally shaped by the forces of social coercion – results in a love that does not fool itself that it can can transcend physicality, even as it goes beyond it.
The production registers the expansiveness of this understanding and the sadness of the circumstances with admirable tact, and no sense of false redemptive uplift. It segues with just the right droll knowingness into that mix of of camp parody and haunted sense of human loss with which the proceedings elusively end.
A focused, bitter-sweet adaptation that can be fervently recommended.
Menier Chocolate Factory, London, until 5 May – 020 7378 1713 / menierchocolatefactory.com
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