REVIEW: Torch Song, Turbine Theatre Battersea ✭✭✭

Julian Eaves reviews Torch Song, a play by Harvey Fierstein now playing at the newly opened Turbine Theatre in Battersea.

Torch Song review Turbine Theatre
Matthew Needham (Arnold) in Torch Song. Photo: Mark Senior

Torch Song
Turbine Theatre, Battersea
6th September 2019
3 Stars
Book Tickets

Director Drew McOnie was conspicuously absent from the press night for the opening of this great play by Harvey Fierstein at a brand new London theatre.  He is a very busy man and I am sure there was a good reason for his non-attendance.  However, in a sense, it was emblematic of the lack of impact he has had on this production, which instead of getting to grips with the great material provided by the author prefers to skitter along on the surface, delivering amusement and some gentle pathos but mostly missing out on the depth, drama and – crucially – the ‘dizzying’ humour that the programme promises the audience.

Harvey Fierstein
Matthew Needham (Arnold), Rish Shah (Alan). Photo: Mark Senior

The people who come out of this best are the supporting cast.  Dino Fetscher as bisexual Ed is the strongest personality on stage: his remarkable good looks as a perfectly honed 70s ‘clone’, playing off the boys in New York’s backroom bars with his interest in girls, added to the athletic power with which he endows every movement or gesture – including standing still – make him magnetic and fascinating to watch; he packs a great deal of detail into his emotional journey, which he makes plausible and memorable.

Daisy Boulton as his female love, Laurel, does a lot with her role, with a generous, involved and passionate performance making her a completely logical partner for Ed.  After the interval, Bernice Stegers gives a bold, brisk rendition of the lead’s mother: a domineering and bullyish Jewish matriarch not really coming to terms with her son but unable to let him go: a lot more rides on her part, which leads to the climax of the play, but the longer she is in view the more we become aware of the widespread lack of pacing and timing in the show, which undermines the actors’ ability to ‘place’ the humour, and the sorrow.  And that, really, is something for which the director needs to answer.  More notes need to be given here, more care needs to be lavished on the meticulous creation of the comedy, or the jokes simply fail to land and we don’t care as much as we should.

Torch Song Turbine Theatre
Bernice Stegers as Ma. Photo: Mark Senior

Without the brilliant lightness of the show’s gaiety and joi-de-Vivre, we do not feel nearly as much the pain and suffering which lurks at its heart.  And this is a great pity.  This cast deserves better preparation before putting them in front of audiences: they cannot just sort it out for themselves.  This is a far from straightforward drama: all the characters are complex and more than just a little confused by the world in which they live.  Clearer decisions need to be made to enable the rise and fall of their verbally dexterous monologues, conversations and arguments to have their full strength and effect.

Turbine Theatre Battersea
Dino Fetscher (ed), Rish Shah (Alan). Photo: Mark Senior

There are also newcomers making their stage debuts: Jay Lycurgo is jolly and energetic as the adopted 15-year old wise-guy David, and Rish Shah does a fair job of establishing the tragic Alan, the lead’s lost, love.  But our attention keeps coming back to Matthew Needham as the stand-in for the writer, Arnold.  He offers a performance of studied laconic interiority that is the polar opposite of what the script gives him.  His sullen, often unchanging frowning mask of a face deadens joke after joke after joke: true, there are some survivors, but there are many casualties.  Well, it’s one way of interpreting the part.  I don’t think it works.  This is actually high comedy.  It is a kind of drama that functions best if the actors can demonstrate profound emotional engagement and spin on a sixpence between extremes of human experience: one second they should be shaking us with the ‘dizzying’ laughter advertised by the programme, and the next they should be able to pull us up short into shocked stillness and sorrow.  That is the script here.  To pretend otherwise is to miss out on its essential character.

Turbine Theatre Opening
Matthew Needham (Arnold), Dino Fetscher (Ed). Photo: Mark Senior

And there is a lot more to it than that.  This is also a play that is ‘about’ theatre itself: beginning with the ‘drama’ of putting on the mascara and dragging up; offering monologues and recitations of various kinds, including listening to them in complete black-out (lighting by James Whiteside); taking us through an ingenious ‘quartet’ of voices in a shared bed; using physical theatre to caricature and gesturalise the story; and it culminates in an apparently traditional box-set situation comedy (design by Ryan Dawson Laight, who gets the costumes spot-on), just like Neil Simon might have written.  Interspersing all of this is Sebastian Frost’s eclectic if not always very sure-footed sound mix.  But, always, running through these styles, there is the consistent voice of authority – Arnold – exploring his thesis about love, loss and identity.  Now, these are all aspects of theatre that McOnie could be the master of; if he has not shown himself to be such on this occasion, then there must be reasons.  Perhaps the producer and artistic director of the theatre, Paul Taylor-Mills, will be able to enlighten us on that score.

Torch Song Trilogy
Matthew Needham (Arnold) and Daisy Boulton (Laurel). Photo: Mark Senior

Be that as it may, what we get here is a fair-to-middling rendition of a really, really good script.  Listen to what the actors are saying, including Needham, and regardless of how it falls on your ears, its magic will work: it will make you turn your thoughts inward and ask yourself searching, important questions about who and what you love, where and how you have felt loss in life, and – above all – who exactly do you feel and think yourself to be.  But be prepared to miss out on the real highs and lows of the play.  And that, one hopes, will be sufficient to justify having mastered the trick of finding your way to this venue: I caught the train from Victoria to Battersea Park and then walked around the corner from there to hop two stops on the bus to the south side of Chelsea Bridge, and then walked the rest.  It was fairly easy.  Other routes can be less comfortable.  Getting away from it after the show to Waterloo was much more complicated and time-consuming.  I hope the theatre’s website might soon be offering clearer and fuller transit instructions.

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