Thursday, 3 November 2022

Theatre review: A Single Man

Christopher Isherwood's A Single Man was famously made into a film a few years ago, best known for starring Colin Firth and Nicholas Hoult in his pants. Now the Park Theatre's main house plays host to a stage adaptation by Simon Reade, and while the white pants are ably filled, the Firth-shaped hole proves harder to ignore. The story is a day in the life of a fifty-something English academic who teaches literature at a California university. His last day on earth, in fact, as foreshadowed in Philip Wilson's production when we first meet George (Theo Fraser Steele) asleep in his bed, lying flat on his back under a white sheet as if on a slab. It's less than a year since his boyfriend died in a car accident, and George is still adapting to being single again; we see him fill his day with work, friends and bars, in between memories of his lost love.

The blurb for the production describes the original novel as "powerful and sexy," and Reade's adaptation as "wry and compassionate." I mention that because in the interval Ian and I were looking at the show poster and marvelling at how none of those adjectives had ended up on stage.

Instead the only way I could describe a production that stays as clinically cold as the slab it opens with is... well, there it is, it's happening over there. A lot of that comes down to the script, much of it evidently lifted directly from passages in the novel, which Steele struggles to make come to life. I mentioned the Tom Ford film at the top as much of the production seems to be deliberately echoing it, but while I can see that George is meant to be the stuffy gay academic, not quite fitting in to early-1960s California, Steele's words come out not so much clipped as robotic.

This is most problematic in terms of the story's reflections on grief - there's no sense that George is painfully repressing his feelings about Jim's death, merely dispassionately recounting them. But it also means Wilson's production never hits a coherent tone, especially in the busier first act: Paramedics dress George to the accompaniment of a jaunty tune, which feels completely at odds with the flat way it's staged. The ensemble have far less to do but generally fare better - the suburban tension around George is shown by Freddie Gaminara's seethingly homophobic neighbour, whose wife (Phoebe Pryce) tries to adopt a more 20th-century attitude. (You can also judge how little a show's engaging me by how much time I spent thinking that Gaminara must be William Gaminara's son, seeing as how they have the same name and also face.)

In the longer second act things take a turn for the worse as the play seems to actively apply for my Fram of the year award: It opens with George visiting English friend Charley (Olivia Darnley,) who's going through losses of her own, and without the contrast of the brasher American characters we're left with a full thirty minutes of weirdly staccato conversation where the pair complain at each other, and all I could think was that if I wasn't interested in his midlife crisis, why would I be interested in hers?

Finally we get George's ambiguously sexually charged encounter with his flirtatious student Kenny (Miles Molan,) which is only a slight improvement. Yes, this is in part down to how much time Molan spends in tighty-whiteys or just a towel, and given the way this blog's reviews often go I'm in no place to complain about that being a priority. But it does help if I'm convinced getting a buff young actor in as little clothing as possible wasn't the main reason for staging the play, and while that element's well-served (the otherwise-underused Gaminara's spot-on US jock looks are also put to good use) it shouldn't be the only thing a show's got going for it.

Fortunately Molan's youthfully enthusiastic Kenny does bring some life back into these scenes as well, and in the role of representing a bright, sometimes naïve hope for the future he fulfils the brief as well as he fills the briefs. But it's not enough to salvage the evening or create the necessary sexual tension - Caitlin Abbott's brutalist set design is a bit too on-the-nose as the central character is an emotional breeze-block. On the way out Ian said the production didn't make you feel anything, but that's not quite true. Although if that feeling is jealousy for George getting to die in the end, that's not great.

A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood, adapted by Simon Reade, is booking until the 26th of November at Park Theatre 200.

Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: Mitzi de Margary.

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