PREVIEW DISCLAIMER: This one officially opens to critics next week.
Having had one of their biggest-ever hits with La Cage Aux Folles, it's perhaps not that surprising that the Menier Chocolate Factory have turned to Harvey Fierstein's work again; although as despite the title Torch Song Trilogy isn't a musical, it may not reach quite as big an audience. Fierstein's three short plays from the late 1970s, later rewritten into a single show, follow drag queen Arnold (David Bedella) over the course of six years, and through his ever-shifting relationship with the bisexual Ed (Joe McFadden.) In the opening act, The International Stud, it's just the two of them on stage, getting together then parting when Ed falls for a woman. In Fugue in a Nursery, Ed is now married to Laurel (Laura Pyper,) and Arnold visits for the weekend, accompanied by his new boyfriend Alan (Tom Rhys Harries.) The final section, Widows and Children First, sees Albert dealing with family: His mother (Sara Kestelman) is about to visit, unaware that the real reason she's been invited is to meet David, (Perry Millward,) the gay teenager Arnold is in the process of adopting.
Douglas Hodge directs a very funny, warm-hearted production, and Bedella holds the whole thing together as Arnold, always seeking to be loved without compromise, and gradually having to learn that he's not as accepting of other people's peculiarities as he hopes they'll be of his. I should mention that Joe McFadden is my most long-standing Big Favourite Round These Parts who I've fancied since the mid '90s (when he took his shirt off I actually remembered the mole on his left pec from his sex scenes in The Crow Road) but this is the first time I've seen him on stage so you can assume a certain amount of excitement, and very little chance of me being able to be objective. In fact at times I may have been distracted from what people were saying on stage because I was too busy looking at him, but if he will spend the entire second act in a T-shirt and boxers doing forward rolls, what does he expect? At least you can enjoy the novelty of me fancying someone my own age for a change. Anyway McFadden was inevitably going to be my highlight, his sweet, charming Ed making it clear why people would fall for him so easily, although I could have done with perhaps more indication of the dark side that makes him able to so casually break hearts wherever he goes.
Hodge's production is aided by an inventive set from Soutra Gilmour in creating a very different style for each section of the trilogy: The International Stud is largely a series of monologues interspersed with the occasional scene of both leads together, played on a shallow stage, the mirrors of Arnold's dressing room becoming various windows and other spaces as needed by the story. The most creative section is the middle one, Fugue in a Nursery taking place entirely on a massive bed, the four characters in their sleeping attire constantly changing position as they pair up in different ways, their conversations mirroring some of the various sexual configurations the characters get through, this being just pre-AIDS (I'm not sure how many people will be paying attention to Bedella and Pyper during one of their conversations, given what McFadden and Harries are getting up to in the background at the time.) Finally, in the Brooklyn apartment Arnold shares with his adopted son, Widows and Children First has more of the feel of a sitcom, with Millward funny as the ultra-camp teenager trying to reunite Arnold and Ed, and Kestelman exchanging bitchy barbs with her son. It's perhaps a little too sitcom at first, although I found this lessened as the story touched on more serious areas.
I went with Vanessa, who I obviously figured could identify with a story about an ageing drag queen. I'd warned her to bring some tissues, although a certain part of the story didn't pack quite the emotional kick I'd remembered from the film (although it must be quite a while since I saw it as I'd incorrectly remembered which character certain events happened to.) But by the end the production manages to step things up a gear emotionally, and Vanessa's tissues came in handy. A classic gay play given a funny and emotionally-charged performance, I'd recommend it (and for fans of Joe McFadden it's got a be a must-see.)
Torch Song Trilogy by Harvey Fierstein is booking until the 12th of August at the Menier Chocolate Factory.
Running time: 2 hours 50 minutes including interval.