Torch Song Trilogy, Menier Chocolate Factory, London

 

Paul Taylor
Wednesday 13 June 2012 11:20
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Douglas Hodge picked up awards on both sides of the Atlantic for his knock-out turn as Albin, the drag queen in the Menier Chocolate Factory's production of La Cage aux Folles. He now returns to the venue wearing his director's hat for this revival of an earlier Harvey FIierstein-scripted show – the celebrated Torch Song Trilogy (1981) about Arnold, a New York Jewish gay drag-performer, and his chequered search for love and family in the era that immediately preceded AIDS.

Watching Hodge's beautifully staged production, I was struck by how this three-part work now manages to seem, in some respects, a period piece and, in others, ahead of the game. At its premiere, some commentators objected that the plays – which end with the rather wishful set-up of Arnold as adoptive parent to a gay teenager and back in the arms of the bisexual love of his life – confine gay aspiration to heterosexual templates. Things now look rather different in a world of civil partnerships and surrogacy. And the fact that this revival opened on a day when the papers were full of the Church of England's opposition to gay marriage lent a renewed charge to the ugly climactic scene where Arnold's overbearing mother (excellent Sara Kesteleman) expresses outrage that Arnold dares to compare her loss of a husband of 35 years with his grief for a partner queer-bashed to death by kids with baseball bats at the age of 27.

With his huge pearly smile, David Bedella is perhaps too straightforwardly seductive as Arnold, a man whose witty Neil Simon-esque retorts are surely a defence against sexual insecurity and fear of loneliness. But he captivatingly communicates the character's outsized romantic spirit and struggle to be honest. That fine actor Joe McFadden is too pretty-boy cute to represent Arnold's idea of the masculine as the rather shitty and shilly-shallying bisexual but Perry Millward is very convincing as the adoptive son, David, a shrimp armoured in the precocious persona of a street dude, who benignly perceives how like his mother Arnold is (he'd go spare if David were to bring a girl home) and who sees through all the double standards that are on hilarious display in the tumbling permutations of the four-in-a-bed staging of a sticky weekend in the country. If it doesn't establish the piece as a classic, this revival does aspects of it proud.

To 12 August ( 020 7378 1713; www.menierchocolatefactory.com)

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