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Review Round-up: Aussie Import Holding the Man

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Holding the Man, adapted by Tommy Murphy from the best-selling memoir by Australian Timothy Conigrave, received its UK premiere at Trafalgar Studios on Tuesday (4 May 2010, previews from 23 April), starring Kath and Kim's Jane Turner alongside original cast members Guy Edmonds and Matt Zeremes.

Falling in love with the captain of the football team at an all-male Melbourne high school in the 1970s was never going to be universally accepted. Holding the Man follows the highs and lows in the relationship between Conigrave, who found being young and gay exciting but uncharted territory, and John Caleo, his lifelong lover of 15 years.

According to the press release, it’s an “an achingly funny and heartbreaking true life story ... that speaks across generations, sexual preference and culture”. Both men were diagnosed with HIV in the mid-1980s and died of Aids-related illnesses, Caleo in 1992 and Conigrave in October 1994.

  • Simon Edge on Whatsonstage.com (four stars) - “With four of the six-strong cast performing quick-change routines on a bare, functional set, it's a fast-moving, wittily compiled piece … 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) … 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.”
  • Dominic Maxwell in The Times (three stars) - “If you think you’ve heard this one before - the one about the young gay lovers and the first wave of the HIV virus - this lively Australian drama has other ideas … Guy Edmonds as Tim and Matt Zeremones as John convey beautifully their respective self- involvement and self-containment. Jane Turner, from the sitcom Kath and Kim, switches from high comedy to high seriousness in a heartbeat, and the rest of the supporting cast - Simon Burke, Oliver Farnworth and Anna Skellern - also excel.”
  • Michael Billington in the Guardian (three stars) - “For all the virtuosity of David Berthold's production and the play's success in its native Australia, I found the experience more theatrical than dramatic, and evasive about several key issues … The play displays a refreshing humour. There's a funny account of a GaySoc student meeting in the 1970s when Tim, noticing a number of actors, is wryly told: 'There is some crossover with the drama society.' … While the play undeniably works, it leaves much unsaid about the sexual tensions in Australian society.”
  • Sarah Hemming in the Financial Times (three stars) - “A moving story, then, and a true one … A versatile cast (led by Jane Turner) switches costumes jauntily to present schoolmates, perplexed parents, gauche students and ageing drinkers in a gay bar … There are lovely, gradually deepening performances from Guy Edmonds as the flamboyant, flirtatious Tim and Matt Zeremes as the gentle, loyal John … The first half sets Tim and John’s tentative steps into a relationship and into society against a breezy, whistle-stop tour of the 1970s and 1980s … At the end, as John struggles for life and Zeremes replicates his agonising attempts to inhale, something remarkable happens in the theatre: you suddenly realise that the whole audience is holding its breath for him.”
  • Fiona Mountford in the Evening Standard (four stars) - “A wrenchingly moving love story … We watch Tim and John (Guy Edmonds and Matt Zeremes, both terrific) meet as teenagers at an astonishingly understanding Catholic boys’ school and follow them and their changing hairdos through university and sexual experimentation, until the spectre of Aids starts to hover and the mood of the evening shifts markedly … the superb four-strong supporting ensemble, including Kath and Kim’s Jane Turner, fare just as well in the bad times as the good.”
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