To the accompaniment of the harp, the audience become the confidantes of drag queen Arnold (David Bedella), vulnerable as he applies his make-up backstage at a New York nightclub. As his grease-painted and sequinned defenses go up, his emotional defences come down in a volley of one-liners at his own expense. In this night of three plays, we never again glimpse the glamour of performance, of the eponymous 1920s Torch Songs by lovelorn chanteuses that Arnold calls “music to be miserable by”, but Arnold’s hilarious one-man evocation of the backroom clubs offer some of the evening’s sharpest and most sparkling moments.
By the second play, the glitter has well and truly rubbed off, and is replaced by a bedroom farce that never manages to escape the confines of the bedroom, instead becoming mired in a claustrophobic four-way emotional tug-of-war between Arnold, his ex-lover and his new wife, and Alan (Tom Rhys Harries) his relentlessly forgiving, baby-faced teenage boyfriend. The late 70s setting here predates AIDS, and the threat of homophobic violence is a background presence emotionally outweighed by the social pressures acting on gay men, in particular on Ed (Joe McFadden), whose choice of marriage with Laurel (Laura Pyper) over life with Arnold never seems fully explored in his always-smiling, child-like portrayal. The design by Soutra Gilmour allows the gritty surrounds of a nightclub to convert seamlessly into the brick walled, brightly-furnished apartments familiar from a host of American sitcoms, but the windowed rooms on either side of the stage feel rather underused, and could be used to drag the action out of bed.
Some elements of the story require imagination; could a full-time drag queen really make enough to pay the bills? Would a troubled gay teenager really be placed with a gay foster father and rearrange his love life? In the 30 years since the trilogy’s first appearance, awareness of open relationships, bisexuality and casual sex has reached the mainstream, making them presumably rather less shocking here than in their original outing. Other issues, such as gay adoption, are still very much live. Elements of the third play are still hard to swallow, as Arnold’s prospective adoptee David (the relentlessly perky Perry Millward) is only a couple of years younger than his previous partner, Alan. Harvey Fierstein’s plays were originally striking for their portrayal of gay maternal instincts, and the yearning for family; by day, Arnold is a man turning into his Jewish mother both despite, and because of, his best efforts. However, David Bedella’s apron-clad portrayal of his character’s femininity just seems like another kind of drag act, while his shouted interactions with his mother (Sara Beckoff) seem too issue-laden to cut to the emotional heart of the pair’s relationship.
At in the interval, I overheard one middle aged woman say “I thought there would be more dancing”; this is no Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and Arnold’s drag act remains a spectral, off stage presence. Instead, this is a long evening, and an often emotionally gruelling one, with the sung interludes only offering the briefest of respites. Agonising emotional conflicts take centre stage, only partially leavened by, and often undermined by, the quick-fire humour deployed by Arnold and his mother at everyone’s expense. For anyone with a fascination with the New York gay scene, this will furnish a lot of laughs and leave some food for thought – for others, it may feel rather too much like hard work.
Torch Song Trilogy is playing at the Menier Chocolate Factory until 12th August. For more information and tickets, see the Menier Chocolate Factory website. Photo by Catherine Ashmore.