“I may have killed the man I love”
Importing the two main leads and the director from the highly successful Australian production, Holding the Man makes its UK debut at the Trafalgar Studios. Written by Tommy Murphy but based on Tim Conigrave’s 1995 memoir of the same name, it is a love story charting the high and lows of the relationship between Tim and John Caleo, the captain of the football team at their high school no less, over 15 years. It has garnered much acclaim in its native country, but added to that with this transfer is the UK stage debut of comic genius Jane Turner, Kath out of Kath and Kim, as you will not have failed to notice if you’ve seen any of the advance publicity for this show!
I went to see this play without knowing anything about it or the circumstances in which it was written and so therefore, its impact on me was phenomenal. If you don’t know anything about it either, then I have to say I would recommend coming back here at a later date to read this review, but rest assured that this is probably the first stone-cold must-see play of the year.
It is extremely, painfully funny but also heartbreakingly true-to-life as both Conigrave and Caleo died of AIDS and the book on which this was based was published just months after Conigrave’s death. But rather than locating this story in the broader political context of how HIV/AIDS affected the gay community, in the way say Angels in America did, the focus of Holding the Man is intensely personal: this is Tim and John’s story and all the more emotionally powerful for it.
It starts in Melbourne in the 1970s with how Tim and John got together whilst still at a Jesuit high school and then follows them through the trials and tribulations of being a young gay couple, the different reactions of their families as they came out, the struggles to deal with long distance relationships as they go to different universities and discover a new world of meeting other gay men. Act two then takes a much darker turn as both men are diagnosed as HIV positive and then develop full-blown AIDS.
As with the recent import of the cast of Hair, we get all the benefit of players already intimately familiar with the material and each other, and in Guy Edmonds as Tim and Matt Zeremes as John, we have two extremely good performances, completely convincing in taking us through the charming naïveté of schoolboys in love to young adults with differing agendas. Their relationship is beautifully portrayed, never backing away from showing the difficulties they often faced, whether from those around them (the piercing comment from one father saying it was easier to say that John was dying of cancer rather than AIDS and his almost disappointment once said cancer was cured punched the air out of the whole room) or the decisions they make for themselves with tragic consequences (without giving too much away, the show is Tim’s attempt at redemption), but in their tender moments, it would take a heart of stone not to be taken in by their story.
Around them swirls a multitude of supporting characters, played by four actors with dizzying speed and to largely hilarious effect. It is here that Jane Turner is found, and it may seem a curiously understated choice for her UK stage debut but it plays to her comic strengths and in the first half in particular is frequently found stealing the show: you will never want to see her in a sleeping bag again though. However, she is matched by Simon Burke, awarded my Most Versatile Actor fosterIAN award last year (and indeed Best Actor in a Musical), reinforcing said versatility in a vast range of crucial cameos ranging from leather daddy in a gay bar hunting for fresh meat to embittered father at a deathbed redrafting his son’s will to his own benefit. Anna Skellern and Oliver Farnworth also provide nice moments with Juliet, Tim’s fag-hag-in-training and Peter, a gay nurse friend, two of the minor characters given a little more stage time than most. Their combined performances were all the more impressive given this was the first preview and not a slip or mistake was apparent.
Design-wise, it is set on a mostly bare stage with an array of props and actors’ mirrors that are inventively used to evoke a wide range of locations and there’s some great use of costumes and wigs as we skip through the 70s and 80s. The key though is in the lighting which is just exquisite, I’m not sure if it is was imported from the original production, whereas Brian Thomson the designer came from that production, lighting designer James Whiteside is new to the team. Either way, it was brilliantly done. I have to admit to not really being a fan of puppets and my heart did sink as the first scene opened with a toy astronaut representing Armstrong’s first steps on the moon. Fortunately, further use was limited even if I remained sceptical of how effective it was, but it finally comes into its own in the final scenes when the puppetry was finally deployed to most hauntingly harrowing effect.
Heartwrenching and persuasive, Holding the Man is a truly rollercoaster ride of emotion as we got through self-discovery, love and ultimately tragedy, but it plays as a beautiful tribute to these two men and a beautiful affirmation of the enduring power of love between people, no matter what their sexuality. Go and see it now.