Reviewed – 6th September 2019
“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.
Reviewed by Flora Doble
Photography by Mark Senior
Turbine Theatre until 13th October
Previous shows covered by this reviewer: