“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.
“harbours a great concept and has significant potential”
Going away to camp is a rite of passage for most young people whether that be with the Scouts or for a musical festival. Camp, directed by James Easey, imagines a new type of camp retreat for which LGBT+ and queer folks go to earn their Gay-Card and officially join the community. Written by Easey and Kimberley Turford, Camp follows the camp experiences of three LGBT+ individuals as they study hard for lessons on everything from queer history to Voga (Voguing Yoga, of course!).
Felix (Nicholas Marrast-Lewis) is a loud, out-and-proud gay man who is woefully ignorant about the LGBT+ issues. Becky (Camille Wilhelm) is a bisexual woman who is passionate about fighting the bi erasure. Mary (Fizz Waller) is an ex-Christian who has just left her husband of seven-years after finally coming to terms with her attraction to women. The trio clash at first but are soon able to explore together the ways the community needs to do better.
Camp considers many important issues facing the modern LGBT+ and queer community, in particular, the in-fighting between bisexuals and homosexuals and negative attitudes towards trans individuals. The topics raised are interesting but discussion surrounding them is often derailed by Becky’s angry and often over-the-top reactions. Though Becky is understandably angry about the ignorance within a community that purports to be for her, it would be good if her character was mellowed to facilitate better dialogue amongst the characters.
The play is at its strongest when it engages the audience directly. At one point, the actors step out of their roles and ask the audience LGBT+ trivia. This is a great way to break up the action on stage and some facts – such as the word ‘homosexual’ only first being used in 1869 – are so shocking that they earn a collective gasp from the audience. Voga is also excellent fun, and gold sparkly Gay-Cards being gifted to every audience member is the perfect way to end the show.
The stage is not particularly remarkable. A futon to the left of the stage acts as both a sofa and a bed and two chairs with a small table to the right creates the impression of a classroom. Rainbow bunting hanging on the back wall is the only decoration that places them in a camp environment. Props are minimal but a colourful book with the words ‘The Book of GAY’ plastered across the front used for the quiz is notable.
The lighting is very simple. Scenes end with a fade to black so that the actors can reposition themselves on or off stage. This is not always done with good timing and one scene took place for about five seconds in the dark. At the end of another scene, the stage was made far darker than any previous transition which led the audience to believe the play was over and thus began to clap. This sort of inconsistency leads to substantial confusion and needs refining.
Waller is the standout star. She is wonderfully funny as May and fully engages the audience. Her comic timing is excellent and her quick wit in response to unexpected moments such as when an audience member interrupted her reading out a quote make up some of the performance’s funniest moments. Wilhelm and Marrast-Lewis stumble over several of their lines, and their arguments are not convincing in tone or escalation despite the strong script.
Camp harbours a great concept and has significant potential, but a fine tune of its characters and the play’s execution is needed to really drive home the important issues that it endeavours to explore.
Reviewed by Flora Doble
Lion and Unicorn Theatre until 24th August as part of Camden Fringe 2019