In 1995, a memoir was published in Australia charting the love affair between two Melbourne schoolboys whose relationship endured into adulthood. Both fell victim to Aids, with the author, Tim Conigrave, surviving his lover, John Caleo, by two years. The book became a posthumous bestseller under the title Holding the Man, a term derived from Australian football.
A decade or so later, with those early ravages of Aids a fading memory for gay communities, young playwright Tommy Murphy turned the memoir into an award-winning stage play that enjoyed four separate runs in Sydney. Director David Berthold's production now arrives at the Trafalgar Studios complete with the two original leads, Guy Edmonds and Matt Zeremes. Joining the cast is Jane Turner, best known as Kath from the sitcom Kath & Kim, who was a friend of Conigrave. By weird chance she was present when he first met Caleo and knew several of the 15 or so people she plays here.
Although the evening is arranged in two halves, this is essentially the standard three-act drama into which so many gay lives were cruelly chopped in the Eighties and Nineties: closetry, liberation and tragedy. On one level, it's a dated story that tells us nothing we didn't know already about the cruel impact of the epidemic on "fast-lane gays", as Edmonds' self-centred, outspoken Tim calls himself, as well as those like the shyer, self-effacing John who only ever wanted sex with the same partner.
But if the age of the first-night audience is any guide, there is also a hunger on the part of a new generation of gay men to hear those stories for the first time. Murphy's robust adaptation, with its uncompromising approach to sex and sickness, its black comedy and its pathos, has a simple authenticity that contrasts refreshingly with the elaborate narrative tropes of the once-definitive Angels in America.
With four of the six-strong cast performing quick-change routines on a bare, functional set, it's a fast-moving, wittily compiled piece that takes us from a school-camp circle-jerk to a cringy Gay Soc meeting and a gruesome bar where the stylised conversation – "Tee hee, ha ha, Babs, Judy, vagina, Rock Hudson, dizzy bitch, fist" – hits home with an awful accuracy. Simon Burke, Oliver Farnworth and Anna Skellern offer strong support in their multiple parts, but Turner effortlessly steals all the early scenes, showing a wider comic versatility than her TV role allows.
The mood darkens in the second half as Tim and John receive their shattering diagnoses on the same day and then fret over who infected whom and how to tell their uncomprehending but subtly differentiated sets of parents (both played by Burke and Turner). Part of the power of the material stems from the bitterly self-critical way in which Conigrave has written his own character. But the hurt he inflicts on his partner pales in comparison with John's callous father wrangling over his dying son's will and then harvesting his possessions into a black bin-bag before his body is cold.
Edmonds and Zeremes are utterly convincing as the mismatched but eternally committed lovers, veering from mutual recrimination to resigned passion as the killer virus stalks and consumes them.
It’s no surprise that the final deathbed scene is a tear-jerker. That it succeeds in being so when centred entirely on a skeletal puppet standing in for the doomed John is a touch more remarkable.