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Torch Song review at Turbine Theatre, London – ‘confident production of a pioneering play’

Matthew Needham and Dino Fetscher in Torch Song at the Turbine Theatre, London. Photo: Mark Senior
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When Harvey Fierstein conceived his original Torch Song Trilogy in the late 1970s the gay liberation movement was still very much in its infancy. This new-found sexual freedom gave rise to a heightened masculinity in the gay community, culturally sidelining anyone openly queer or effeminate. Fierstein challenges this attitude with central character, Arnold Beckoff, a New York drag queen seeking love and a sense of family in this era of social change.

The focus of much gay drama shifted over the next two decades as the spectre of Aids took hold. Plays that championed acceptance were superseded by plays that told of the fight for survival. Today the landscape may have settled but Arnold’s battles are still being fought 40 years later. Fierstein’s play, albeit edited from the original four hours, continues to speak with humour, clarity and defiance.

Torch Song might be an important play but it’s not an obvious choice to open a new theatre in London. Producer and artistic director of the new Turbine Theatre in Battersea, Paul Taylor-Mills has admitted as much, but his gamble pays off. Drew McOnie’s production is quietly confident and features a strong cast, led by Matthew Needham as Arnold.

Needham dominates the stage as if he’s marking his turf. We are in Arnold’s territory and, from the opening monologue, it’s clear he is calling the shots. Needham effortlessly captures Arnold’s vulnerability but it’s his anger, rising to the surface when dealing with his intolerant mother – an irascible Bernice Stegers – that defines his performance.

Matthew Needham and Bernice Stegers in Torch Song at Turbine Theatre, London. Photo: Mark Senior

Before reaching this showdown, the complex tapestry of Arnold’s modern family unfolds. The play contains an array of richly defined characters and well-judged performances. Dino Fetscher lends warmth and empathy to the conflicted bisexual Ed while, in his professional debut, Jay Lycurgo as Arnold’s foster-child David, brings lightness and humour to a tumultuous final act.

Following his production of King Kong on Broadway, McOnie directs his first straight play with confidence. The emotional fireworks explode in all the right places and there’s an elegance to much of the staging. McOnie has a good ear for the pace and rhythm of Fierstein’s dialogue. It’s a satisfying production from the Olivier-Award winning choreographer who has always excelled in exposing the emotional truth of a musical piece.

Ryan Dawson Laight’s straightforward composite set design makes it difficult to gauge the versatility of the Turbine’s stage, but the building itself reflects the energy and investment already ploughed into Circus West Village. Taylor-Mills is determined to make it a destination venue and while it’s still early days, it’s certainly worth taking a trip down the river to catch this production.

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The Turbine Theatre opens with Drew McOnie’s confident production of the pioneering gay drama