Torch Song ★★★★

This illuminating production shines a light on life and ways to love in 70s New York

Harvey Fierstein’s hugely influential Torch Song Trilogy began life back in 1978, the year in which the opening scene is set. In Fierstein’s streamlined shorter revival (down to two and a half hours from over four) his autobiographical account of the complicated love life of Jewish drag queen Arnold Beckoff still packs an extraordinarily powerful punch.

The action takes place over several years, extending into the early 80s, when being openly gay or bisexual, like the men whose story it tells, would have been more problematical than it is today, at least in cities like its New York setting. Tellingly too, this is before the Aids epidemic began to take its devastating toll, so to experience it on stage now is to see it through the lens of recent history.

Torch Song is a sort of elegant progression of arias, starting with Arnold’s solo, followed by his bickering duet with his bisexual lover Ed. Later this is capped by a duet, trio and quartet in a delicious bedroom scene chez Ed – now married to Laurel – entertaining their house guests, Arnold and his new young lover Alan. They all embrace, snuggled beneath the covers of one bed, standing for both marital and guest beds. All of them confide in the audience directly too.

How Arnold survives a devastating loss and finds closure, partly thanks to working towards adopting a delightfully positive young gay teenager, and despite his archetypal acerbic Jewish mother, is the moving and satisfying matter of the show’s resolution.

Fierstein’s writing is witty and passionate, especially for his alter ego Arnold. From the self-deprecating jokey opening monologue in the seedy backroom at gay cabaret bar International Stud, Matthew Needham captures Arnold’s precariousness and capacity for pain, thinly disguised under a carapace of waspish wit. “I’ve slept with more men than named in the Bible, but not one ever said ‘Arnold, I love you’,” he shares as he dons a red lamé evening gown and matching wig.

Dino Fetscher’s conflicted Ed graphically and sympathetically conveys his often painful and combative struggles to come to terms with his complicated sexuality. Daisy Boulton brings a lovely sense of knowing fun to Laurel, who in turn finds her own way of coming to terms with her husband’s needs. It’s hard to believe that Torch Song is the professional debut for both Rish Shah as Alan and Jay Lycurgo as 16-year-old David, but for the attractive freshness they bring to these younger men.

Bernice Stegers positively revels in creating Arnold’s monstrously unsympathetic uber-Ma. Carefully power-dressed, she strides around the apartment radiating equal parts suspicion and contempt, coming out with put downs like "the last of the Beckoffs" (aimed at Arnold), which reveals the widow’s disappointment that her son is unlikely to provide her with a grandchild.

Noted choreographer Drew McOnie (Strictly Ballroom) directs this different couples’ dance with a sure and knowing hand on designer Ryan Dawson Laight’s versatile set, morphing effortlessly from seedy dressing room to marital bedroom, to New York apartment kitchen on the cosy stage of this intimate new theatre.

The evening leaves its audience sharing unexpected contentment and resolution for Arnold, as he looks to embark on a different kind of family life from what his mother might envisage, in an unlooked-for hopeful ending.

By Judi Herman

Photos by Mark Senior

Torch Song runs until Sunday 13 October. 7.30pm (Wed-Sun), 3pm (Sat & Sun only). £32. The Turbine Theatre, SW11 8AB. 020 7851 0300.