Holding the Man, a play by Tommy Murphy, adapted from Timothy Conigrave’s memoir, is one of the most beautiful love stories I have ever had the pleasure to behold on stage. Big Boots Theatre Company convey Conigrave’s story, about his relationship with the love of his life, John Caleo, with poignancy and grace – a manner wholly fitting to honour the memory of two men and their heartrending tale. I was rendered speechless, leaving the theatre moved to tears.
Christopher Hunter (Tim) and Paul-Emile Forman (John) share a chemistry that pervades the piece. Performed in a small, black box theatre, above the Brockley Jack pub, the space enables the audience to really see their relationship play out up close. What really stands out is the relatability of their relationship; when they get together as teenagers, you too feel butterflies reminiscent of that sensation when you first fall in love with someone. As they experienced difficulties in their relationship, I got knots in my stomach.
Marla-Jane Lynch, Dickon Farmer, Emma Zadow and Sam Goodchild, an incredibly strong accompanying ensemble, continue to maintain this level of excellence. Though multi-rolling, each actor embodies their various characters naturally, and with ease. All of them have not only perfect comic timing, but wonderful dramatic effect, carrying the both comic and tragic nature of the piece perfectly. A particular favourite of mine is Goodchild’s representation of Juliet (Zadow)’s mother, with handbag, pursed lips, and a repeated use of the phrase “Lovely.” Not only is his characterization hilarious, but the accuracy of it has the audience in fits of laughter – we all know someone’s mother who is just like this. In his directing, Sebastian Palka really hits the nail on the head; every character, all incarnations of people that Conigrave knew, is depicted so realistically that is heightens the drama even more; when they laugh you laugh, when they feel pain, you feel pain.
The encounters Tim and John face as they grow up in 1970s Melbourne are at times universal; the rather NSFW group sleepover scene, the break ups, the auditions and trials in their careers. The simplicity of the set and lighting contributes to this, the set consisting of a bed that is moved around stage, and a clothing rail in the corner for the ensemble’s multi-rolling; allowing you to focus solely on the performers. But the performance is ultimately so heart-breaking because it resonates so strongly with the audience; we can empathise with their growing up and progression into adulthood. Consequently, when the tragedy hits, it hits you even harder. These are characters that you come to love because of their relatability, and when you remember it happened in real life, it hits you all over again.
Witty, intelligent and moving, Big Boots Theatre Company present Conigrave’s story in a beautiful and most respectful way. A must watch.
Holding the Man is playing Jack Studio Theatre until February 4.
Photo: Nicholas Chinardet