Theatre: Torch Song, The Turbine Theatre, London SW11

BY CHRISTOPHER WALKER

London has a new theatre, The Turbine, just opened on the banks of the Thames – part of the major redevelopment of the old Battersea power station, writes Christopher Walker.

Buried in this new, vast, concrete jungle, it’s hard to find, and a lot smaller than you’d expect. But at least it’s there. And the young artistic director Paul Taylor Mills promises “new energy…new productions and classic stories reimagined for contemporary audiences”.

I guess the Turbine’s new production of Torch Song Trilogy fits that bill, though it is a brave choice to open with.

Harvey Fierstein’s extraordinary 1970s autobiographical hymn to Arnold Beckoffm, a smart-talking, wise-cracking New York drag queen, was originally a four-hour marathon (thankfully this is a new, pared down version).

It went on to acquire a cult following, and made its way on to the Big Screen in the 1988 movie powered by a stellar caste including Ann Bancroft, Matthew Broderick, and Fierstein himself as Arnold.

Main picture from left, Matthew Needham (Arnold), Jay Lycurgo (David) and Dino Fetscher (Ed) in Torch Song at the Turbine Theatre; Above, Matthew Needham as Arnold.  (Pictures: Mark Senior)

As a result it’s sometimes hard to shake off one’s memories of the movie.

Let’s face it, Fierstein’s gravel-voiced Arnold is one hell of an act to follow, and I’m sure many agents would never have allowed their rising star to attempt it.

But then Matthew Needham is a quite outstanding talent. And he’s got guts. He won himself a London following in last year’s production of Tennessee Williams’ Summer and Smoke. And his performance here is every bit as good.

His Arnold is softer than Fierstein’s, and even more vulnerable. I’m just not sure any self-respecting drag queen would have such messy hair.

Many of the scenes in this version are also different, as is the overall balance of the piece. Ed’s role is much larger and is perfectly captured by Dino Fetscher (of Years and Years fame).

Dino is also so good looking an Ed that it is hard to imagine Arnold resisting him for more than five seconds.

The first act concerns their troubled love affair which ends when Ed decides to marry Laurel (Daisy Boulton). In Act Two Arnold has moved on to young Alan, though poor Rish Shah has far fewer lines than Matthew Broderick was given.

There is some hilarious shadow boxing between the four of them as Arnold and Alan visit Ed and Laurel’s country house and fall together….and apart.

Bernice Stegers as Ma. (Pictures: Mark Senior)

In the last Act we meet Arnold’s mother, played by theatre veteran Bernice Stegers, and his adopted son David, portrayed by Jay Lycurgo in a stunning theatre debut.

The exchanges between Arnold and “Ma” are well crafted, and if anything more raw and troubling than previous versions, thankfully offset by Jay Lycurgo’s comedy. Act Three, subtitled Widows and Children First, is the most successful part of the trilogy – at least in this version.

The spirit of the seventies is well caught by designer Ryan Dawson Laight, in the music, the outrageous flares and the ‘concord collars.’ Ma’s sunglasses deserve an award in themselves.

For anyone who is not familiar with Torch Song Trilogy, this “re-imagining” is a good way to appreciate some fine performances and the quality of Fierstein’s writing which makes the audience identify so closely with the humanity of the central characters.

All in all a successful opening for London’s newest theatre, tucked away in a railway arch in the shadow of one of London’s iconic buildings.

Like all new projects, this theatre has a few teething problems –the front seats could do with a “rake” – but we all wish the Turbine well and salute this new opportunity for actors and audiences alike.

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