Douglas Hodge began his journey to Olivier and Tony winning glory playing a drag queen in the Menier Chocolate Factory’s production of the Broadway musical version of La Cage Aux Folles, which had a book by Harvey Fierstein; now Hodge returns to the Menier, this time as director, of Fierstein’s bold, brave autobiographically inspired play about one New York drag queen’s life.
Laura Pyper (Laurel), Joe McFadden (Ed), David Bedella (Arnold Beckoff) and Tom Harries (Alan) in Torch Song Trilogy at the Menier Chocolate Factory, London Photo: Tristram Kenton
If ‘I Am What I Am’ from La Cage has become a defining anthem about a gay man’s pursuit of acceptance without apology or compromise, then Torch Song Trilogy - which first arrived on Broadway a year ahead of La Cage Aux Folles - showed us, in minute and revealing detail, just where that spirit of open defiance had come from.
And as the Menier’s new Torch Song Trilogy opened on the same day that the Church of England publicly objected to the current government plans to introduce gay marriage, the play has proved eerily (and sadly) more resonant than ever; it’s return here, thirty years almost to the day since its original Broadway premiere, proves that we’ve come a long way but not really very far at all.
As Fierstein’s alter ego here, Arnold Beckoff, rages against the closet of compromise that his lover Ed locks himself inside by choosing a heterosexual marriage against his own real desires, or his mother Mrs Beckoff who considers her own grief at the loss of her husband of 35 years far more considerable than his of his young lover killed in a gay bashing, this play mounts a taunting, aggressive assault on values, like those of the current Church of England, that seek to put him and his right to be himself and love whoever he wishes in a lesser place.
Arnold is a big and big hearted character, and so is this play (it clocks in at nearly three hours). While there are elements of soap opera and a dose of sentimentality, his anger is beautifully offset by the real humanity, wonderful wit and true love with which the character is drawn. Those different colours are revealed in the alternately fierce and tender performance of David Bedella, who has carved out a niche in cross-dressing characters from Frank N. Furter in The Rocky Horror Show to the title character in Hedwig and the Angry Inch.
But it’s also far from a one-man show, and Hodge’s production also has lovely performances from Joe McFadden as his confused lover, Laura Pyper as his lover’s wife, Tom Rhys Harries as his new partner and Perry Millward as his adopted son. Sara Kestelman has more gritty work to do as the mother, at once the most unsympathetic character on the stage as the channel for its portrait of bigotry, but also the most interestingly drawn.
The play is deservedly a landmark of gay theatre, and this unmissable production serves it superbly.