“McOnie does a spectacular job of adapting Torch Song for the contemporary stage”
The Turbine Theatre is a brand-new venue set beneath the railway arches south of Battersea Power Station. Exposed brickwork, modern furnishings and large windows reflects the theatre’s desire to create productions with a ‘new energy’ for ‘contemporary audiences’.
What better way then to open the inaugural season with a revival of Harvey Fierstein’s seminal work, Torch Song. Directed by Drew McOnie it tells the story of drag queen Arnold Beckoff (Matthew Needham) and his quest for true love in 1970s Manhattan. He first falls for a confused bisexual man named Ed (Dino Fetscher) who dithers between him and girl-next-door Laurel (Daisy Boulton). Fed up with Ed’s lack of commitment, he starts dating young model Alan (Rish Shah) before tragedy strikes. Years later, he adopts a gay teenager named David (Jay Lycurgo) and attempts to rebuild his relationship with Ed. All the while, longs for the approval of his Ma (Bernice Stegers).
Needham has fantastic chemistry with all his co-stars. Needham and Ferscher are thoroughly convincing in the role of agonised and confused lovers, and Needham’s witty back and forth with Lycurgo is enchanting to watch. Lycurgo brings a great energy to the stage, and Stegers switches effortlessly between the comic stereotype of the overbearing Jewish mother and the wallowing widow. Stegers and Needham’s arguments about love and loss will have the audience on tenterhooks.
The set (Ryan Dawson Laight) is amazingly adaptable. A neon sign hangs above the stage indicating each of the parts in Fierstein’s trilogy – ‘International Stud’, ‘Fugue in a Nursery’ and ‘Widows and Children First!’. In the first act we see just Arnold’s makeup dresser and two phones. The second act – one bed, though the way in which the actors interact with the space creates the illusion of two separate rooms and beds. The set becomes marvellously elaborate in the third act as the audience is transported to Arnold’s new home. The décor is gaudy and thoroughly 1970s. Bright green counters at the back and a working oven are used by Ed to make an unappealing breakfast of eggs, onions and kippers on stage.
The apartment set is dismantled seamlessly to transform into the street outside. Low blue light and cold air pumped into the audience tells us it is night. The lighting (James Whiteside) is used well elsewhere too, notably, to create the dingy surroundings of a nightclub’s ‘backroom’ where men engage in anonymous sex.
Torch Song is both touching and raucously funny. The characters are flawed but entirely relatable due to this, and the script is excellent. The play’s issues of love, loss and acceptance are still relevant today making Fierstein’s work a timeless insight into the human condition. McOnie does a spectacular job of adapting Torch Song for the contemporary stage and this is definitely a production worth shouting about.
“It is enough just to be swept along with its energy and its silliness”
Thirty years ago Baz Luhrmann’s stage play, “Strictly Ballroom”, enjoyed a successful enough run in Sydney to be picked up and transformed into the film that helped make his name and shape his career. Although Luhrmann is still at the helm of the current stage incarnation that pretty much replicates the movie, he has stood back to let it be reinterpreted for the new audience. In the hands of director and choreographer Drew McOnie, some new trimmings are added to the otherwise faithful version of the original. And there’s the rub: this stage production inevitably cannot escape the comparisons (of which there have already been many) to the original film. But that is not the point.
Set in the cut-throat world of small town amateur ballroom dancing, the story focuses on Scott Hastings and his struggle to establish his personal style of dance on his way to win the Pan-Pacific Grand Prix Dancing Championship. His steps are not “strictly ballroom”, and in his refusal to follow convention the surmounting obstacles threaten to crush his ambition. Cue ugly duckling, Fran, who is the only one who shares his passion. Totally predictable, it is nevertheless a gloriously magical show, full of the glitz and glamour you expect, but also a complete send up of that exact same glitz and glamour. Being a satire of itself you can forgive the sometimes over-the-top camp delivery and off-target humour.
Overall it is slightly off balance. There are a few too many lows between the highs, and some meaningless musical asides that steer the narrative off course. But these do not phase the cast who are uniformly strong. McOnie’s choreography is second to none which the entire company effortlessly pull off with their impeccable dance skills. Everything about the design is a delight, from Catherine Martin’s colourful and flamboyant costumes to Howard Hudson’s lighting, which make the show a real spectacle. It is a shame, though, that so few of the leads are given the opportunity to sing. Instead, star attraction Will Young monopolises the soundtrack of pop classics as he takes on the role of emcee – a curious device for this show, albeit a crowd pleasing one.
But what truly makes this production are the two leads. Jonny Labey, as Scott Hastings, moves like a panther yet can mix in the camp comedy with ease, and his charisma outshines the sequins on his jacket. Then there is Zizi Strallen who constantly lights up the entire stage. A compelling performer with a natural stage presence, she displays an outstanding talent for dancing and acting. The West End will surely be seeing a lot more of her.
The pair’s onstage chemistry undoubtedly gets you to engage in a production that is otherwise a touch hit and miss. But that may be because it defies categorisation. It is not exactly (deliberate avoidance of the synonym ‘strictly’ there) a musical, yet with plenty of electrifying routines and the powerfully tight sound of the onstage band, we are drawn in and we end up rooting for the characters. Whether or not you have seen the original film, the outcome is plainly obvious. But, as I said, that is not the point. It is enough just to be swept along with its energy and its silliness. Like Scott Hastings’ dance steps, this show flies against convention and should be applauded for that.