Torch Song is the inaugural performance at the brand new Turbine Theatre housed at Battersea Power Station. The opening of a new theatre is always an exciting event and the energy hums and whirrs about the place in fitting homage to its past life. This is not a glitzy West End affair – no plush red seats or stylish interiors – but a buzzy location, friendly staff, and a brightly lit, mirrored foyer provide a suitable welcome.
The auditorium, under the arch of a train line, is all gloomy stone and with makeshift rows of loose chairs feels like a temporary fringe venue, cobbled together for a few transient evenings. It has its charm however and the stage despite being small, is elegantly dressed. The stone arch backdrop is surprisingly fitting for most of the locations featured; drag queen Arnold’s dressing room, a backroom bar, inner city apartments. This serves to create an atmospheric setting, which even the intermittent rumbling of trains overhead does not intrude too much upon. One wonders how well this would lend itself to future plays but for now at least, the space is an appropriate match.
Torch Song, a trilogy of one act plays set in 1970s Manhattan, follows the life and loves of Arnold. Mathew Needham plays this lead role competently and sensitively, delivering a multi-faceted character with both qualities and flaws shining through. He has charisma no doubt, but there is perhaps room to elevate this character further without losing the grounded realness of the man. One occasionally longs for a glimpse of star power – he is a performer after all, and a heightened contrast between his vulnerability and his strength, but these are small criticisms and he should be commended for this all in all excellent portrayal. Indeed the whole cast are proficient, but special mention goes to Jay Lycurgo whose lively and spirited David breathes some much needed fresh air into the last act and, along with Bernice Stegers as Ma, really animates the third play. This is Lycurgo’s professional theatre debut and his energy and presence seem well suited to the stage – definitely a rousing prospect for the future.
The story cannot escape its clichés, first performed as a trilogy in 1981 this was groundbreaking work but now feels familiar and a little staid in places. There remains, however, much left to enjoy in the writing. The character of Ed whose struggle to choose between his girlfriend (Laurel) and Arnold, is presented in a complex and intriguing way; not simply as a repressed gay man, hiding his identity from a judgemental society, but as a human being genuinely confused about his feelings for two people. Through this we are given insight into the complex, blurred nature of sexuality and the difficulty of understanding our own wants and desires, made harder still when a fight for acceptance is required.
The final play brings some sparkling originality and wit, as well as being a touchingly honest exploration of parent-child relationships. The writer Harvey Fierstein seems to have really honed his skill by this last part of the trilogy and there is little lacking from this wonderful second half filled as it is with depth, emotional resonance, humour and intelligent reflection.
This performance is a great first offering for The Turbine Theatre and one looks forward with interest to what comes next.