Pros: Smartly directed and well played
Cons: Thin characters and unremarkable story
Australian actor/writer Timothy Conigrave’s posthumous 1995 memoir recounts his experience of young gay lovers falling prey to the AIDS epidemic. It charts his relationship with John Caleo, from their meeting at high school in the 70s to their mutual HIV diagnosis in the 80s and John’s death in 1992. The book sold well, won a United Nations prize, and this adaptation by Tommy Murphy has been widely produced since 2006 as well as yielding a Netflix film version.
I hate to seem unfeeling, but based on the play my response to the popularity of Conigrave’s story is simply to ask: Why? What is it about this slight tale of a rather self-centred young man that seems to have struck a chord with so many people?
There’s nothing wrong with this production of the play, which is elegantly designed by David Shields, and well directed by Gene David Kirk to fit snugly onto the Above The Stag stage. As doomed lovers Tim and John, Jamie Barnard and Ben Boskovic are fine, and a five-strong ensemble expertly handle multiple roles. Most of the show’s laughs come from Joshua Coley camping it up to the max, though the actor also showcases his diversity in more subdued roles.
One of the main problems with the story is that it’s presented in such a very low key. Tim falls for hunky sportsman John, who readily reciprocates. Early parental disapproval proves an insignificant barrier to young love. Tim gets bored and ditches John to go to drama school and sleep around. Tim returns and resumes his relationship with John. They’re diagnosed HIV positive and John is the first to go. All this without a glimmer of passion or drama. Where’s the pain of love and loss? Where’s the rage against the dying of the light? Holding the Man is potentially a canvas for a gripping tale of humanity in extremis, but its tones are so muted that the picture it paints is a frustratingly bland one.
It doesn’t help that the principle roles are so carelessly drawn. Being young and pretty are not personality traits – these characters desperately need some meat on their bones, but Tim is simply shallow and thoughtless, and John’s not much more than a doormat. An element of self-awareness might have been supplied by Tim’s narrative interruptions, but instead they just supply us with information we’re expected to sympathise with.
Those with personal connections to the AIDS crisis will naturally find any related story an emotive experience, and several members of the audience were clearly moved by the tragic trajectory of the play. My own feelings were that the victims – and survivors – of that devastating period deserve a better monument than this factually accurate but fatally bloodless play.
(On a side note, have the trains passing over the venue got louder? They used to be a rumbling nuisance but are now a distracting roar. I hope Above The Stag’s next venue – they move to some neighbouring arches next year – affords them some more effective sound-proofing)
Writer: Tommy Murphy (based on the memoir by Timothy Conigrave)
Director: Gene David Kirk
Producer: Peter Bull for Above The Stag Theatre
Booking until: 21st October 2017
Booking link: https://abovethestag.ticketsolve.com/shows/873578308