This terrific trilogy of plays by Harvey Fierstein - originally premiered separately off-Broadway in 1978 and 1979 and then on Broadway together in 1982 - makes for a long haul of an evening but is also most definitely in for the long haul.
Receiving its first major London revival since it was seen at the West End's Albery Theatre in a 1985 production which starred Antony Sher and also featured a very young Rupert Graves (in roles originally taken off-Broadway by Mr Fierstein himself and a very young Matthew Broderick), it is revealed now not merely as a gay classic but a classic, period. Bold, frank, adventurous, witty and wise, it offers a piercing portrait of a man looking for love and seeking to make a family, against the odds of society and the rejection of his own.
Written just a few years before the spectre of AIDS cast its dark shadows over the gay community - and proceeded to infect gay playwrighting, too, so that for the following decade no gay play was immune from looking at the virus - these plays have a far wider and more universal embrace, looking to the core of the human condition.
If that makes it sounds earnest, Fierstein's trilogy is anything but, because the firebrand that ignites it throughout is the sound of laughter. His wisecracking Jewish humour makes this the funniest laugh-out loud evening in London, but each line detonates with the kind of sharp edges that keep revealing harsher truths about the characters. That said, the author is also always compassionate, even forgiving: he doesn't judge these characters, merely reveals them as the bundle of contradictions all human beings are.
At Torch Song's centre is the larger-than-life, fiercely funny, proud and brave Arnold. A professional drag queen by night, he's introduced as he's getting ready for a performance, when he warns us: "a drag queen's like being a oil painting - you got to stand back from it to get the full effect."
The same could be said of the plays, whose bruising resonances only emerge once you've seen the whole picture. In the close-up proximity of the King's Head, however, every brushstroke of characterisation that makes them up can be minutely observed.
Miles Western (pictured) - the surprise Olivier award-winner for his drag role in Pageant two years ago - returns to the King's Head where that show originated to give an absolutely bravura turn both in and out of drag as Arnold. Western captures the light but more importantly also the wounding, vulnerable shade of the character perfectly.
Nathan Nolan also beautifully reveals the tortured bisexuality of Ed, the man he falls in love with, and as the woman that Ed marries, Carol Carey is a luminous presence as she tries to come to terms with the fact that she's constantly attracted to gay men.
The evening comes into its fullest focus in the third act, when Arnold is observed juggling his responsibilities to the gay teenager he's foster-parenting (a knowing, appealing performance by Matthew Noble) with the arrival of his own mother from Florida (Maxine Howe, as monstrous as she is mountainous).
Andrew Wood's production is worth enduring over three hours of the King's Head's ever-punishing seating to enjoy. There's no higher recommendation in London, believe me.
- Mark Shenton