REVIEW: Torch Song @The Turbine Theatre, Battersea

Torch Song

Harvey Fierstein

The Turbine Theatre

This production of acclaimed trilogy of plays now reworked by its original author into a more compact ‘Torch Song’ touches all the right levers and its emotional honesty and endless characters’ raw truth, often told directly to the audience,  makes this play a delight to watch. The hard earned humour is as earthy as it ever was and the beating heart of hope triumphant is the constant lamp light which leads this play though some of the darkest places that living can throw at us.  Harvey Fierstein’s fiercely fearless examination of loss, grief and painfully honest recovery of protagonist Arnold as he literally drags himself though life is a theatrical classic and this condensed edition gives us all the cream and goodness without feeling lite.

Matthew Needham is lovely, a willowy beanpole of a man, parred to his core by experience but still bending in the wind, learning, loving and never letting go of the need for potential and for a life lived well.  His asides are done with just the right knowing throw-away pain; the jokes come at a heavy price but are light and relentless. It’s curiously undated for a play set in such a distinct time and Needham gave a performance of his own, a different Arnold to Fiersteins  filmatic flaming fag but the same old querulous Queen.   Arnold being fucked in a back room while trying to make polite conversation was a hilarious monolog and arresting physical comedy from Needham the whole audience was doubled up laughing.

Dino Fetscher as Ed is not only visually striking- he’s such a handsome actor who is very easy on the thirsty eye – but his tender performance of the confusion of Ed’s life as he learns to hope for more whilst desperately trying to do what’s expected of him is touch perfect. The play allows an exploration of his bisexual sexuality with an honest clarity that gives insight into his needs and dreams. Ultimately Ed gives us the most complex character of the night, and touches real tangible fear and panic at points. He was a joy to watch.

In the second part Fugue in a Nursery, the action between the two couples on one big bed, blended with tight choreography of this four person, three conversation, two time-lines scene giving us a delightful head turning medley of meaning and truth, chopping with a furious pace which never lost of the narrative pace of this play but keeping the pressure of a tense emotional conversation at its heart.

The rest of the cast are a delight, all wonderful in their own ways.  Jay Lycurgo  plays the wonderfully energetic son David , full of cheek and sass, learning to love himself  and teaching Arnold how to be close enough to support but not close enough to stifle.   Daisy Boulton’s Laurel is pained but seriously real, her own feelings way out of the depth of the brittle gay men she meets,  she still connects and finds the things that resonate and tries to understand.  Rish Shah’s debut here as Alan is charming but ultimately this truncated play leaves this complex character unexplored,  Bernice Stegers as Ma is the final act gives us all we want from the rough diamond Jewish mother, slowly rising out of the shadow of grief and ultimately shows us where Arnold gets his strength in adversity from, as she wears the famous bunny slippers and tries to teach him about the permanence of grief, reaching across the angry abyss that has opening between them, we see a bridge of hope spanning out.  In what must be one of the best mother/gay son argument scenes in theatre we see them both circling what understanding each other is really going to cost them.   Brisling with anger and dramatic tension it never fails to raise the hairs on my arms, tonight was no exception.

The lighting from James Whiteside is superb, gently leading the eye into the action, setting ambience and atmosphere with a subtle conviction, his nightclub setting up was filled with sly humour,  my companion adored it and was impressed with the production in general.

The real cigarette smoke puffed across the audience and real cooking & smells associated added a sensual delight and domestic tenderness to this play which was wonderfully convincing.  Costume is delightful; Ed’s trousers in particular are an arresting addition.  The small set is a lovely affair keeping us domestically cosy and allowing us out into the dressing rooms and darkrooms of the New York Gay scene.  Desiner Ryan Dawson Laight has done this small space proud.

Did I miss the songs and some the very deep drag humour, yes I did, but as this is Harvey Fierstein own chopping and pruning of the original trio of plays to make one strong narrative I kind of forgave it as, seduced from the opening monologue into the supreme efficiently and emotional punchiness of his writing, I let Torch Song do it’s stuff.

Over the last 40 years many of these cries for fairness and justice have been answered across the world, but its beating heart, the demand for love and respect on your own authentic terms still screams at the moon.  The final scene, although hefty and punchy has lost some of its tenderness and although I welled up, no tears come, whether than means I’ve become a cynical old queen in the last 20 years or the play fails to connect to its heart at the last I’ll leave up to you.

This is fundamentally a play about truth, everyone tells their truth, there is no judgement or blame (although plenty of shouting) and that’s the essence of superb writing. It speaks to us today as it did, not as raspy or shrill or urgent as it was then, but as matured, insistent and commanding.

The Theatre itself, stretching off into the brick vaulted distance is very comfortable, as you would imagine for an arts venue in such a swish developer led area, and is not only fully accessible but some thought has gone into what that actually means for people using the space. The staff couldn’t be more help and are charm itself. Cute too.  Although Nouveau-Battersea is a gleaming soulless Gattaca writ large the Turbine Theatre maintains some charm and character, cosily leaning into the bricks and mortar of reclaimed industrial Victorian might and its sophisticated lighting and staging units seem more than adequate for this production, I’d be interested to see how it changes the space for others to come.

A very easy journey up from Brighton,  Gatwick Express up to Victoria then number 44 bus ( outside the Grosvenor Hotel just outside station entrance) takes you a lovely 10 min journey through Chelsea and over Chelsea bridge, then it’s a short walk down to the riverfront and you’re there. Easy and a place I suspect I’m going to enjoy seeing develop its artistic breadth over the coming years and as Arnold says in the first few moments of the play ‘you get used to the rumbling of the trains overhead’.

Until 13th October

For more info or to book tickets see their website here:


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