Holding The Man

5
Mon, 18th Sep 17
Seen at Above the Stag.

Holding the Man reviewA tender and touching love story: what does it matter that they were gay? Nothing. And yet that is what sets it apart. Tommy Murphy wrote the play based on the book by Tim Conigrave in a series of scenes which colour-in the relationship of Tim & John from schooldays to John’s death from AIDS. On the surface, this could be bitty and confusing, but Gene David Kirk has woven words, sight and sound into a refined, gripping evening. For such a sad story, it thankfully has some glorious comedy.

David Shields’ striking set, in the colours of John’s preferred team, has its own beauty and the cast effortlessly glide elements around to produce new settings. Shields’ eye for costume is immaculate – a pair of ear-rings, a change of top, a different cut to the trousers – each help define character and guides us through time. With pop recordings from each year, Andy Hill’s sound reveals the passage of time and offers poignant support to the story’s development. Jack Weir’s lighting reflects the black and red colours with great variety before pitching us into harsh white for the hospital revelations.

The production and ensemble are immaculate, but the undoubted star is Jamie Barnard as Tim. He presents a marathon part with subtlety, wit and love. We believe as he ages from a nine-year-old to mature man achieved through tiny details of hesitancy or gesture as slowly he discovers his potential and stalks his dreams. Of course, his main dream is John (Ben Boskovic). The delight that both show as dream becomes reality is heart-warming. Writing on John’s pencil case is a detail to remind us all of schooldays. Boskovic gently develops his character’s innocence and hurt during their breakup and reunion, ending with shockingly accurate breath control for his decline into the disease.

The ensemble of five deliver numerous characters between them: only Barnard and Boscovic do not double. Liam Burke presents both boys’ fathers, making us wonder if it is John’s father’s grief which leads him to demand a share of John’s inheritance or intolerant greed. Annabel Pemberton delicately develops their mothers, devastating in a late scene where, over John’s declining body, she talks of him in the past tense whilst Tim maintains the present. It is clear she lost him long ago. Joshua Coley delights in playing another mother, nailing her character with minimal costume – her jewellery is enough with careful posture and intonation; then gives us John’s friend Peter the nurse who tellingly confesses that he could not offer Tim the support he will give to John. Robert Thompson’s most remarkable role is an AIDS victim in a wheelchair. He morphs from handsome young man to withered hulk with startling skill. Faye Wilson effectively develops Juliet, who is Pandarus to the boys’ relationship despite their parents’ wishes.

Holding the ManAlong with relating Tim and John’s love story, we also follow Tim’s theatrical career. This allows the actors to create many memorable scenes: the boys’ car from their bodies, complete with working parts; the drama class monkeys hooting across the set; the dinner scene to set up the boys’ first kiss; and the ridiculous relish of the wanking scene where each has decided of the size of his (or her) part! Best use of sleeping bags on stage ever, leading to a remarkable change for Pemberton as she turns from pubertal boy to concerned mother by sloughing the sleeping bag and beanie and in a swivel is transformed.

It is tragic that Jamie Barnard’s dynamic Tim is excluded to become passive as John’s parents and friends reclaim him at his death. He has nowhere to sit at the deathbed, and even as he reaches to touch his lover’s forehead, he is brushed aside by John’s father. His exuberant delight in acting (nobody’s going to employ a poofter monkey) and his charming relationship dissolve into disbelieving grief. Barnard is totally believable throughout, letting his love for John and life shine out.

A truly beautiful performance.

Derek Benfield


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