Venue: Menier Chocolate Factory
Author: Harvey Fierstein
Director: Douglas Hodge
Cast: David Bedella, Tom Harries, Sara Kestelman, Joe McFadden, Perry Millward, Laura Pyper
The show consists of three autobiographical one act plays, originally produced separately then combined into one epic piece charting the relationship between Arnold, a romantically idealistic drag queen and his relationship with Ed, a bi-sexual school teacher. In the first play they meet and date, in the second play they spend a weekend together with their respective new boyfriend and girlfriend and in the third play they contemplate family life together during a visit from Arnold’s mother as he tries to adopt a troubled gay teen. The characters are very likeable and there are plenty of laugh-out-loud wise-cracks.
I first saw this twenty years ago when Sir Anthony Sher secured his reputation as one of our top stage actors by playing Arnold in the West End. I went back when Harvey Fierstien took over, saw the subsequent film and a mis-cast revival at The Kings Head. I think I may have even seen drag star Dave Lynn in the lead role. All this is to say that the play has become like an old friend. It's as American as the stars and stripes but if you’re a gay man you'll recognise and relate to so many of the observations it makes on relationships, break ups and especially the mother/son dynamic. In fact during my stormy coming out weekend I was surprised to find my mum, in the heat of the moment, echoing some of the barbs Arnold's ma fires off.
Perhaps Sara Kestelman lacks the sheer vocal power of past actresses in this role but she more than makes up for it with a withering frailty. David Bedella is terrific as Arnold. He has the same raspy voice as Fierstein and he too brings a new vulnerability to the character.
The director, Douglas Hodge, won a Tony award playing the matriarchal drag queen in la Cage Aux Folles (script by Fierstein) and his sensitive direction is testimony to the affinity he obviously feels for the writer and his words.
The cuts were unnecessary, the new ending is too showbiz and the dingy set and dim lighting sap some of the joy from the comedy but it's still a fine production and I loved Perry Millward in a weirdo interpretation of the adopted kid that makes perfect sense of his string of unsuccessful foster homes.
Yes, it’s a little dated but this play is one to collect, guys. Every gay man should see it - Fierstein holds a mirror up to all our lives. And if things are a little easier than in Arnold's day it's because plays as brilliant as this one forced gay characters into the mainstream.
VERDICT: ***** (Five Stars) Highly recommended. You’ll be amazed how much this thirty year old play says about all our lives.
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