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A CurtainUp London Review
Torch Song

"You're doing it again: asking the questions you really don't want the answer to.
— Ed
Torch Song
Matthew Needham as Arnold and Dino Felscher as Ed
(Photo: Mark Senior)
The Turbine is a new 200 seat theatre in the apartment and business complex built on the site of the former Battersea Power Station by the Battersea Power Station Development Company and backed by theatre impresario Bill Kenwright. I reached it by riverboat from piers at Embankment, Hayes Wharf or the Globe and more. Artistic Director Paul Taylor-Mills has recruited Drew McOnie to direct his inaugural production of Torch Song by Harvey Fierstein.

I was blown away by Matthew Needham's performance as Arnold Beckoff, a New York drag queen and torch singer and his search for true and reciprocated love. The International Stud is the first play in the trilogy as we are introduced by monologues into Arnold's quest for romance. He makes us laugh, as at the names chosen by other drag queens, Bertha Venation and Kitty Litter.

The time is the late 1970s, Arnold reveals his vulnerability and his neediness but he is also very sympathetic. He meets Ed (Dino Felscher), hopefully his international stud, but the affair fizzles out as Ed leaves to explore his heterosexuality. Arnold ventures into gay clubs with the "back rooms", thinking about what if rejection should happen there? Ambivalent Ed returns five months later to renew his relationship with Arnold.

In the second play Fugue in a Nursery Arnold and his new squeeze Alan (Rish Shah) are invited for the weekend to Ed and Laurel (Daisy Boulton)'s house in the country. Laurel is the least likable of the four although we are more able to warm to her when she talks about her romantic relationships going wrong and this resonates with Arnold's experience.

After the interval, the third play Widows and Children First! brings the terrible news of Alan's tragic death, not from AIDS but from a violent assault, a killing because of his sexuality. But this act written forty years ago has a freshness as Arnold's awful mother Ma Beckoff (Berenice Stegers) visits and questions the presence of David (Jay Lycurgo), Arnold's fostered son.

This final play is all about acceptance from one's family. The scenes about his sexuality between Arnold and his dragon mother formed some of the most uncomfortable moments in the play for me, but we delight when Arnold explains that David has been placed with him to provide a positive role model of gay men.

The performances are believable. Guided by Drew McOnie's sense of characterisation through movement, even the least experienced actors are natural and likable. Dino Felscher's Ed wobbles about his initial romantic choices. Matthew Needham has shown his range here and I fully expect him to be one of our great actors, as well as receiving obvious nominations for best actor for Torch Song.

I welcome the Turbine Theatre as the kind of smaller space Central London needs and this production augurs well for its future. At the moment the seating is on chairs but the theatre may well want to look at some sort of rake or raising the stage in future.

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Torch Song
Written by Harvey Fierstein
Directed by Drew McOnie
Starring: Matthew Needham, Dino Fetscher, Jay Lycurgo, Rish Shah, Daisy Boulton, Bernice Stegers
Design: Ryan Dawson Laight
Lighting Design: James Whiteside
Sound Designer: Sebastian Frost
Running time: Two hours 30 minutes including one interval
Box Office: 020 7851 0300.
Booking to 13th October 2019
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 4th September 2019 evening performance at The Turbine Theatre, Arches Lane, Circus West Village, London SW11 8AB (Riverboat: Battersea Power Station)
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