Review: Torch Song (Turbine Theatre)

Harvey Fierstein’s abridged ”Torch Song Trilogy” opens the Turbine Theatre’s inaugural season at Battersea Power Station

Matthew Needham in Torch Song
Matthew Needham in Torch Song
© Mark Senior

In a recent newspaper interview, Turbine Theatre's artistic director Paul Taylor-Mills declared his intention to "aim big" with the new Thames-side venue, nestled in the shadow of Battersea Power Station. Appropriately then, the inaugural production is a piece that carries considerable historical weight to theatre aficionados, as a streamlined version of a seminal 1980s play. It also represents the non-musical directing debut of acclaimed, award-winning Drew McOnie, best known for his work on big musicals such as In The Heights, Strictly Ballroom and Regent's Park On The Town.

Harvey Fierstein's Torch Song may be small in terms of cast size and technical demands, but it is mighty in reputation and importance within the canon of gay drama. Originally entitled Torch Song Trilogy and clocking in at well over three hours, it plays as an amorous odyssey for drag queen Arnold Beckoff as he searches for love and connection in 1980s NYC. It concludes with our hero achieving a family life for himself in the face of objections from his disapproving, bewildered mother, a role played by Golden Girls' Estelle Getty in the first production. Fierstein himself originally performed the epic lead part on Broadway and then on film. He subsequently replaced Antony Sher in the West End version.

This new version cuts some dialogue and a chanteuse character who performed ‘torch songs' throughout the first act, giving the play its title. It's now a less daunting length. First seen in New York in 2018 with Michael Urie (Ugly Betty) playing Arnold, the textual cuts are so skilfully done as to be barely noticeable without an intimate knowledge of the original script.

The Torch Song Trilogy was screamingly funny and desperately sad; it unflinchingly depicted the struggles of getting gay lifestyle choices accepted in the ‘70s and ‘80s, and it wore its heart on its sequinned sleeve. All this is true of this stripped back younger sister except that the audience will emerge with a less numb bum and a better chance of making it home before midnight.

Matthew Needham is a more saturnine, enraged Arnold than any other I've seen. The initial monologue, a comic confessional where he muses on some of his romantic misadventures while getting his drag on, is usually ingratiating and hilarious. Here though, Needham delivers it with a sourness and barely suppressed fury that feels surprisingly valid – this opening tone compellingly colours the rest of his jerky, restless performance, which is also the least overtly camp that I have ever seen in the role. Needham's Arnold seems to view himself as a loser unworthy of love from the get-go, with a spiteful edge and a real possibility of self-destruction. The approach isn't as satisfying overall as Urie's thrilling comic highs and tragic lows in the role in the first outing of Torch Song, but it feels impressively truthful.

Unfortunately, it also robs his yelling matches with Bernice Steger's enjoyably unreconstructed Ma – in town from Florida and trailing fresh oranges, unwanted advice and unwelcome bigotry – of some of their power. When he screams in her face that his former lover was beaten to death by kids "taught by people like you", it's still shocking but not especially moving since this Arnold has kept his audience at an emotional distance throughout. However, the on-off relationship with Dino Fetscher's charming, obtuse bisexual Ed is painfully credible.

The production occasionally lacks finesse, with some lacklustre supporting performances, awkward blocking and wavering American accents. Despite this, it is never less than engaging, engrossing enough that the trains rattling overhead (the theatre is in an arch under a railway bridge) barely register after the first few minutes.

Just as a new theatre is inevitably cause for celebration, so getting reacquainted with Fierstein's magnificent creation is always worthwhile. This version may not be as moving or as funny as previous takes on this gorgeous script, but chances are that anybody encountering Arnold and his bittersweet milieu for the first time will still know they're in the presence of something special.