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REVIEW: Torch Song Trilogy | Darlinghurst Theatre, Sydney

A three-for-one deal at Darlinghurst Theatre: a trio of movements in gay drama for Sydney’s annual Mardi Gras festival. The artists distinguish themselves in important ways.

The cast of Torch Song Trilogy | Darlinghurst Theatre

Rumours of Darlinghurst Theatre’s death are, of course, exaggerated. Actually, they-re utterly untrue. It’s just moving. To Darlinghurst. One wonders if the existing theatre will be assumed by another theatre company. One hopes so. One of the last shows to be staged at the soon to be farewelled premises is the current one, installed for Mardi Gras. Torch Song Trilogy is, as the name suggests, an anthology of three plays, by Harvey Fierstein.

Though written as distinct plays (International Stud, Fugue In A Nursery and Widows and Children First!), in practice they’re really three acts. I can hardly begin to speculate on how many productions of TST there might’ve been since it opened on January 15, 1982, but, in any Beckoff bake-off, this one comes out of the oven smelling like fresh bread.

Gaiety Theatre, under the leadership of director, Stephen Colyer, has assembled a dream cast, members of which we don’t see anywhere nearly enough. At the top of the list is Simon Corfield, as Arnold Beckoff, a professional drag queen looking, as we all are, for love, respect and acceptance. To make matters more difficult, he’s Jewish and, as you might imagine, his mother isn’t exactly falling over herself with unconditional approval. Notwithstanding a few inconsequential stumbles, Corfield’s little short of hypnotic in the role, radiating angst without doing a complete Marlon Brando. Chrisian Willis is the crazy, mixed-up, bisexual Ed, a kind of urban, midnight cowboy; straight as a die in almost every other respect. What we used to call square. Between the two, we’re reminded opposites attract and of how fatal this reality can prove.

Belinda Wollaston, probably known better for her musical theatre pedigree, shows just how well she can act, as Ed’s exceptionally tolerant wife, Laurel. She also reminds us just how fabulously well she can sing, with commanding power. Richness. Depth. Warmth. But it has to be said, when she joins the makeshift, mini-me orchestra at the back of the stage, just visible through a partially open sliding door, she clearly demonstrates she’s the world’s worst bongo player. Well, maybe not the worst, but she’s up there. And her primary school clarinet also leaves something to be desired. Not that it matters, ’cause the intimacy that comes of having the performers sing and play instruments as well as act is precious. Musical director Phil Scott has invested profound faith and trust, not to mention having devised crisp arrangements of standards, such as Someone To Watch Over Me.

Thom Jordan is Alan, the buff model who substitutes for Arnold’s foremost, if not first, love (Ed). Jordan plays the role as it should be: Alan is rendered a tragic figure by dint of his premature death; not exactly martyred, by burnished by the glow of regret, guilt and absence. Mathew VerevisĀ  ensures David, the ‘widowed’ Arnold’s about-to-be adopted, wayward son, is bursting with vitality and an innate wisdom that belies his years. He also sings like an angel.

Amanda Muggleton has a tendency to drop out of her classically Brooklyn brogue and into her native burr, but neither is this of any real consequence; it’s entirely forgivable, since her physical mannerisms will be all too familiar to anyone and everyone that has perilous proximity to a Jewish mother. She is charismatic, as always, and rivals Corfield for sheer presence and Verevis for attitude; the latter so much the case that you could be forgiven for mistaking the rapport between them as a blood relationship.

Andrea Espinoza’s production design allows believable transitions from tawdry Manhattan apartment to rambling farmhouse. Nicholas Rayment’s lighting keeps a low profile, such that one can almost hear the pitter-patter of little cockroach feet scuttling across the floor. Nate Edmondson’s sound keeps everything in perspective, too.

Especially in these capable and loving hands, TST stands tall; a seminal moment in gay theatre, to be sure. But that is to damn it with faint praise, for it represents a seminal moment in theatre per se; one that’s resonated for decades. As Colyer rightly points out, It might’ve had humble, inauspicious beginnings as a monologue “about anonymous sex in the back room of a famous New York bar”, but, after Stonewall, the play is arguably the most important sociopolitical blip on the gay rights screen, in its prescient championing of the prospect of marriage and children for GLBTQ people, as the final breakthrough to true equality.

Fierstein, who had no apparent lofty ambitions to begin with, emerges as an unwitting hero in the struggle. Indeed, the genesis of the trilogy could hardly be more mercenary or prosaic. Having elevated his monologue to a fully-fledged play, a savvy friend suggested Fierstein pitch it as the first instalment in a still to be written trilogy, so as to secure future production and income. So it was probably done for money, as much as love. But a girl’s gotta eat!

Colyer and co have distinguished themselves, individually (in this long, but not that you’d notice triple bill), as well as collectively, while honouring a significant theatrical and societal moment borne along, at least to some extent, by the issues outed and addressed by TST. Not many other “gay” plays can hold a candle to it. Who said art can’t change the world?

The details: Torch Song Trilogy plays Darlinghurst Theatre until March 3. Tickets on the venue website.

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