Torch Song Trilogy may not be as fresh as it was when it made its off-Broadway premiere in 1981, but like its irrepressible protagonist Arnold Beckoff, Douglas Hodge’s revival manages to cover most of the cracks of age with a likeable mix of humour and glamour, even if sometimes it’s still possible to hear the odd creak.
Drag queen Arnold (charismatically played by David Bedella) has never been lucky in love, and that state of affairs doesn’t change when he meets the charming but conflicted Ed, a man torn between his homosexual desires and the ‘normalcy’ and acceptance he thinks he will find in the straight world. Harvey Fierstein’s play takes the form of a triptych but unfortunately this first section, featuring the couple’s first meeting and subsequent relationship, is also the most unsatisfying part of the production. While Soutra Glimour’s set is undeniably versatile and stylish, it can also have a distancing effect: Arnold and Ed occupy separate spaces – Ed delivers his initial chat up alone, speaking his lines directly to the audience; a later scene features the couple on the phone, separated by walls and windows – this staging means we never get to witness much in the way of affection or attraction between them. It might work as symbolism, illustrating the gulf between their lives and, crucially, lifestyles, and it contrasts nicely with the intimacy of the ‘bed’ act that follows, but it also means the audience only really get to see the characters’ relationship when it is already beginning to disintegrate.
The second section is stronger. Arnold and his new boyfriend Alan meet Ed and his wife (an entertainingly neurotic Laura Pyper). The action is played out on a giant bed, with the actors tumbling and sprawling in different combinations as their characters clash and intertwine. It works well – the sex scene is particularly clever – although like the play as a whole it feels overlong and in need of judicious trimming.
While this middle act is imaginatively staged by Hodge, for me, it also brought into sharp relief the contrast with the 1988 film, in which Fierstein also starred, and the main failing of the play, which is the relationship between Alan and Arnold. It’s always, I recognise, both unfair and unwise to compare a stage play with a much-loved film adaptation, but it’s also unavoidable, and it’s in this key element that the play comes off worse. Much of this is to do with the portrayal of Alan: in the film a young Matthew Broderick brought to the character a playful, cocky charm, but his Alan also had a combination of youthful idealism and steeliness – he was determined to overcome Arnold’s reservations and build a genuine, loving relationship. in Hodge’s production Tom Rhys Harries comes across as petulant and pouty, too immature to be any sort of real partner to Arnold – the idea of the two of them adopting a child seems absurd when he seems so childlike himself.
The third and final section also suffers from the lack of conviction that plagues the rest of the production. That said, there are some strong performances. Perry Millward is a delight as the precocious David, and Sara Kestelman manages to be both prickly and sympathetic as Arnold’s archetypal Jewish mamma, but Bedella and Joe McFadden’s Ed have little in the way of chemistry, so once again it’s hard to feel invested in their relationship, in whatever form it plays out, and many of the cast tend towards a declaratory staginess in their performances, which is fine given the self-dramatising nature of Arnold’s character, but works less well elsewhere.
While this version of ghettoised gayness may inevitably feel dated, it remains a very funny play, and Bedella makes the most of this. Whether guiding the audience through the backrooms of gay bars or the perils of being a single parent, in his hands Arnold is a big-hearted and likeable figure, sharp-tongued but endearingly self-effacing.