Review: Torch Song Trilogy at The Eternity Playhouse

Lynne Lancaster

A sensational revival of this rarely seen classic and a thought-provoking examination of LGBTI issues.
Review: Torch Song Trilogy at The Eternity Playhouse

Photo credit: Clare Hawley

Presented by Darlinghurst Theatre Company at the Eternity Playhouse, this is a glorious revival of Stephen Colyer’s 2013 production, which originally premiered at what is now the Hayes Theatre.

Quite a bit has changed in the 40 years since Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song Trilogy debuted in New York in 1981. Although the anger and fear caused by the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the years following was a major obstacle, now much of the Western world has accepted the demand for marriage equality, with long-term, committed same-sex relationships mostly now receiving the same legal recognition as heterosexual partnerships. There is also heightened awareness of the fact that there needs to be more discussion about marginalised identities gaining respect, rights and recognition. But some people still will not listen.

Set in New York in the 1970s and 80s, in Act 1 (International Stud) we meet Arnold Beckoff, a Jewish man who falls in love with a bisexual school teacher called Ed. At the end of the first play, Ed has left Arnold, but he returns in the second (Fugue In a Nursery), accompanied by his rather hesitant wife, Laurel. There are complicated hijinks with Arnold’s current boyfriend, who becomes his husband, Alan (delightfully played by Stephen Madsen) with whom Arnold lives happily until tragedy strikes. In the third act (Widows and Children First) Arnold seeks to adopt teenager David as his son.

The play is dominated by Arnold’s relationship with his straight-laced, rather bigoted, arrogant and dominating mother (played by Kate Raison) with wonderful skill and humour. While there is much love, their relationship is also edgy and tormented, with Arnold seeking his mother’s acceptance and respect.

As Arnold, Simon Corfield is tremendous; we see both his suffering and edginess and sometimes joy. He never seems to shut up and has some wonderfully telling monologues (the opening monologue is a rather cynical diatribe about love) as well as crackling dialogue. Arnold is sympathetically portrayed as compassionate yet sharp-tongued, vulnerable and nurturing.

As Ed, the bisexual teacher with whom Arnold has an on/off again relationship with, Tim Draxl is magnificent. He also croons a captivating version of ‘The Man That Got Away’.

As male model Alan, Arnold’s handsome and thoughtful husband in Act 2 who is comfortable and accepting of his inner identity, Stephen Madsen is delightful. 

Imraan Daniels is wonderful as perky, cheeky David whom Arnold plans to adopt as his son, while Hilary Cole is alluring and captivating as Lady Blues, the torch song singer in a long slinky glamourous gown, and excellent as the caring but somewhat confused Lauren.

Returning to the play, director Stephen Colyer has shaped – with his cast – a crackling, warm and humorous trilogy full of sizzling life and witty repartee that simultaneously reveals the complexity, suffering and confusion of the characters.  

Musical director and pianist Phil Scott has devised a classic collection of torch songs (ranging from Gershwin classics to Pink) smoothly interwoven throughout the play to counterpoint the scene changes and complement Fierstein’s snappy dialogue, with the multi-talented cast doubling as singers and musicians.

Imogen Ross has devised a single set that fluidly transforms across the three acts, seguing from dingy 1970s backstage glamour and harsh mirrored lighting to domestic interiors, including a folding sofa-bed. Benjamin Brockman’s lighting is evocative, bold and dramatic.

A wonderful, funny, poignant, moving and thought-provoking production of this ground-breaking play, which is still extremely relevant today.

4 stars: ★★★★

Torch Song Trilogy
Playwright: Harvey Fierstein
Director: Stephen Colyer
Cast: Hilary Cole, Simon Corfield, Imraan Daniels, Tim Draxl, Stephen Madsen, Kate Raison and Phil Scott
Running time: 3 ¾ hours approx. including two intervals

Darlinghurst Theatre Company at The Eternity Playhouse
1-26 August 2018

What the stars mean?
  • Five stars: Exceptional, unforgettable, a must see
  • Four and a half stars: Excellent, definitely worth seeing
  • Four stars: Accomplished and engrossing but not the best of its kind
  • Three and a half stars: Good, clever, well made, but not brilliant
  • Three stars: Solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable or flawed
  • Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate
  • Two stars: Not without its moments, but ultimately unsuccessful
  • One star: Awful, to be avoided
  • Zero stars: Genuinely dreadful, bad on every level

About the author

Lynne Lancaster is a Sydney based arts writer who has previously worked for Ticketek, Tickemaster and the Sydney Theatre Company. She has an MA in Theatre from UNSW, and when living in the UK completed the dance criticism course at Sadlers Wells, linked in with Chichester University.