A Single Man at Park Theatre – review
The world premiere stage adaptation continues its run until 26 November
Anybody who has seen Tom Ford's film adaptation of Christopher Isherwood's novella A Single Man is likely to do a double-take when Theo Fraser Steele gets suited, booted and bespectacled as George in this stage version, so closely does he resemble Colin Firth in the same role in the movie. That resemblance continues when he starts to speak, capturing the exact same clipped, wry Englishness that contrasts so tellingly with the Californian drawl of most of the other characters.
Simon Reade's stage play is most likely to appeal to anybody who loved the original book. Isherwood's language is elegant, exquisite and seldom prosaic. The problem with such a faithful adaptation is that it rarely sounds like real people talking. It's not the fault of the fine cast, who try to invest it with as much life and authenticity as they can, but they constantly sound as though they're regurgitating chunks of a book, which is pretty much what they're doing.
The lack of any real dramatic conflict doesn't help, and neither does the episodic nature of Reade's script, the first half of which has characters and set pieces totter on and off in quick succession but with little impact. Running at under two hours, it might benefit from losing the interval, which feels like an intrusion and breaks up what dynamism the play has. The storyline, such as it is, is a sort of fever dream as middle-aged George replays his friendships and lost love under a blazing sun just as he's about to shuffle off this mortal coil. It's intriguing, and nicely handled under Philip Wilson's fleet direction, but never catches dramatic fire.
Despite Theo Fraser Steele's solid performance, George is too remote and buttoned-up a figure to genuinely connect with. He's a character that really benefits from the close-ups and jump-cuts of the screen: on stage he is simply ‘there', a witty, urbane presence but too unknowable to get truly invested in. We witness George's pain at the loss of a young lover but we never feel it. However, the ensemble cast – Freddie Gaminara, Miles Molan and Phoebe Pryce – do lovely work in an assortment of roles. Olivia Darnley is a gorgeous beam of light as George's closest friend, a needy, lovelorn Brit adrift in the Californian gloaming, even if she reads as a bit young to have a nineteen-year-old son.
Peter Harrison's lighting design works small miracles in transforming mood and time on a set by Caitlin Abbot, that looks stark but captures the unforgiving concrete look of Isherwood's original descriptions of 1960s Los Angeles in the book. Wilson's staging convincingly evokes a very specific time period, with Natasha Harrison's movement direction adding a compelling, dream-like aspect at points.
It's never less than watchable, and the language is something to savour even as it defies theatricalisation, it just needs more fire in its belly and a clearer picture of the central protagonist. The acting is excellent though, and Isherwood enthusiasts will probably love it.