By the end of Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song, I am acutely aware of the fraught atmosphere, the sobbing man on my left and my own damp cheeks. Originally entitled Torch Song Trilogy and performed in 1978 as three separate plays, this new condensed version swells on an emotional crescendo before exploding gloriously into its finale.
It is surreal to find commonality with a Jewish drag queen in 1970’s New York, but to walk with Arnold Beckoff through pivotal moments in his life is to reach back through a misty veil into our own tremulous desires for acceptance and love.
Matthew Needham’s portrayal of Arnold is dazzling and tragic wearing his bravado as elegantly as a ball gown. He’s waspy, sardonic and wields a razor sharp tongue to conceal a sensitive, neurotic and wounded soul.
Through Arnold we are lured through a haze of neon lights and coiling cigarette smoke into the exotic and sordid underbelly of New York’s ‘back room bars’ where gay men seek fleeting companionship. It is not a place where true love is born, and yet it is where Arnold first meets Ed (Dino Fetscher).
Throughout the performance the gravelly rumble of overhead trains can be heard like Arnold’s hammering, resilient heart. He embodies the journey of confusion, rejection and strength that many gay people face in their quest to live authentically. “[I have] a glowing personality but what if I don’t glow in the dark?” he asks with a barely perceptible smile and from that point on, our loyalty and affection for him are sealed. Through his emotional highs and lows we laugh uproariously and feel his pain as our own.
As we follow him through his tumultuous relationship with Ed, Ed’s wife Laurel (Daisy Boulton) and his overbearing mother (Bernice Stegers), we see them scattering, and colliding back together like magnets attracting and repelling one another; and we look on powerless and rapt. Their chemistry is hypnotic.
Fetscher does not fall into the tired stereotype of playing Ed as the closeted gay man who just ‘cannot decide what he wants’ but reveals a conflicted bisexual man who shows genuine care for both Arnold and his estranged wife. Laurel, as all-American as apple pie, has the wide eyes, warm smiles and open body language of a life lived uninhibited by shame. She could not contrast more to Arnold whose body seems to seek the corner of a room even when he stands in its centre.
As the show progresses Arnold goes from addressing the audience directly as though hosting his own life like a cabaret, to being totally immersed in the action. There are scenes of profound tenderness and impassioned conflicts where characters break apart like prize fighters, slumping on opposite sides of a ring, gasping for breath between rounds. These scenes are stark and familiar to many of us and their impact on the audience is immediate. Hands are held in the darkness, shoulders slump and the air bristles with tension. This is not just Arnold’s journey; it is every queer person’s journey. There more we witness in this intimate space, the more that our presence begins to feel voyeuristic, the more personal it becomes.
In many ways Torch Song is a love letter to our own fractured selves. Arnold’s future is uncertain by the play’s end but we leave him as a more mature and decisive man. To be gay is to venture down a well-trodden path, damp with tears. Fierstein’s play shows us that along the way we find a community, an identity, and by the end, with any luck, ourselves.
Torch Song is playing at the Turbine Theatre until 13 October. For more information and tickets, visit the Battersea Power Station website.