On paper, Holding The Man is a potentially grim prospect – a gay coming-of-age story at the start of the AIDS era. The play might also risk seeming dated, as the confusion and fear surrounding the deadly disease has changed. The Australian Griffin Theatre Company’s triumphant arrival in London blows such qualms away in a startlingly effective production. Holding The Man is, quite simply, a beautiful love story.
Romance with a capital R exudes from playwright Tommy Murphy’s adaptation of the late Timothy Conigrave’s celebrated memoirs. Guy Edmonds, who plays Conigrave, and Matt Zeremes, his lover John Caleo, are utterly convincing as the two men in love. They show passion, tenderness, anxiety and pain in their rich performances
The lovers have their faults, but Conigrave’s is also his virtue – his honesty. Blunt to a fault, his writings reveal how hurtful he could be. Often painfully crude and cruel, his desire to be open about his sexuality and then to have an open relationship comes before others’ feelings. He isn’t always an attractive character, but his truth wins our admiration.
The truth has a power to make us laugh. Holding The Man reminds us that laughter goes on even when we are so ill that it hurts us to do so. From the touching naivety of the boys as they fall in love, through Conigrave’s time at college and even in sickness, there is fun to be had. Along the way we get a fantastic soundtrack and costumes so spot on that they deserve a stand up comedy show of their own.
However, director David Berthold and designer Brian Thomson have created more than a supremely funny period piece full of guilty pleasures for those who remember the 80s. Thomson’s beautifully poetic set of lights and mirrors reflects the magic of romance and theatre. Equally, Berthold creates a highly inventive production with a tight ensemble cast using the most of basic props and techniques powerfully.
The play has hundreds of characters. Amazingly, just four actors play all of the other roles with dazzling transformations of gender and age. Jane Turner is given star billing. She succeeds in differentiating her performance as both boys’ mothers from her famous role in cult TV show Kath & Kim. Along with great lines and an easy ability to make people laugh (every gesture gets a giggle), she can also be deeply moving. There is a danger she might steal the show.
Turner is disciplined enough to prevent this and she has some stiff competition anyway. Simon Burke is excellent in the diverse roles he has to perform and outstanding when it comes to portraying Caleo’s father. The British performers joining the cast are Oliver Farnworth and Anna Skellern. Their roles include Farnworth playing a school friend’s mother and Skellern a sexually charged teenage boy in a candid group masturbation scene.
For some this might sound a little unpalatable, but it is fitting that Conigrave’s frankness provokes. For others it will sound like a great deal of fun. Holding The Man is terrific and there is more joy than shame here. The sense of loss as its characters die tragically young turns into a celebration of their lives. The pain felt is embraced, as it must be, in any true romance.
Until 3 July 2010
Written 5 May 2010 for The London Magazine