After sold-out seasons in Australia and a stint in San Francisco, Tommy Murphy’s adaptation of Timothy Conigrave’s best selling memoir Holding The Man has opened in London’s West End to largely favourable reviews which are thoroughly well-deserved.
This play is truly an intoxicating night in the theatre, one which takes audiences through the full gamut of emotions – laughter, love, anger and gut-wrenching tragedy.
Holding The Man tells the story of Melbourne boys Tim Conigrave (Guy Edmonds) and John Caleo (Matt Zeremes). The two meet at high school in the mid-1970s. Tim is in the school production of Romeo & Juliet and has a crush on John, captain of the football team who wants to play for Essendon. By the end of high school even their yearbook acknowledges them as the year’s cutest couple. The play is a breathtakingly honest, heart-wrenching account of a 15-year relationship that weathered disapproval, separation, temptation and, ultimately, death.
The London version of the show takes full advantage of having a much bigger space to work within, although the numerous mirrors which form the basis of Brian Thomson’s elegant, practical and polished original set remain. One of the most gorgeous transitions takes place when Tim and John go to a gay club – the rear wall of the stage parts to reveal a sumptuous row of lava lamps, every colour of the rainbow. Another stroke of genius is when pillows are fixed to the wall, giving us an aerial view of Tim and John lying in bed.
The first half of the show is a charming, funny love story, and as Tim and John are falling for each other, so are you falling for them, which makes the dénouement all the more crushing when it finally comes. The joy and innocence enjoyed in Act One give way to a darker, tragic second act where, against the backdrop of the HIV epidemic, we watch John’s final moments and the subsequent emptiness he leaves behind.
The play explores themes that most gay men face, particularly those in relationships – trust, temptation and identity. The Australian humour seems to translate well to UK audiences – one of the biggest laughs comes from a brutally awkward moment when John is on his death bed struggling to breathe. At one point his wheezing becomes so loud that his mother (Jane Turner) tells him in Kath Day-Knight tones, “will you shut up John, we’re trying to get some sleep!” The laughter breaks the tension long enough for the audience to catch their breath, but within minutes the auditorium is filled with muffled sounds of people fighting back tears; some are sniffling, others openly weeping. The steep rake at Trafalgar Studios is made to feel all the more steeper by an audience so riveted, so invested, that they are literally leaning in on themselves. Through his deft direction David Berthold holds the audience in the palm of his hand – his use of puppetry is haunting and powerful.
For me, one of the most memorable moments comes right at the end when Tim delivers a monologue to a now deceased John. “I fall in love so easily now,” he says, “I guess the hardest thing is having so much love for you and it somehow not being returned. I develop crushes all the time, but that is just misdirected need for you. You are a hole in my life, a black hole. Anything I place there cannot be returned. I miss you terribly.”
Jane Turner, of Kath & Kim fame, leads the excellent supporting cast, and her inclusion, along with strong word of mouth, is sure to help get bums on seats. Turner plays a range of characters, from mothers to nightclub sleaze bags, from a grey haired drama school academic to a lesbian university student. Simon Burke also dons many hats, the most notable being the disapproving, meddling Mr Caleo, who refuses to acknowledge Tim as his son’s partner, and even argues over individual items in John’s will, reminding Tim, “some things are only fair.”
This is a play about HIV. This is a play about homosexuality. But its true magic lies in its universality – this is a play about love and the meaning of life. It’s great to see Holding The Man resonating with audiences all around the world.