Review: Harvey Fierstein's Torch Song Trilogy

By John Nathan, June 15, 2012

Menier Chocolate Factory, London SE1

David Bedella in Torch Song Trilogy, which also stars Sara Kestelman

David Bedella in Torch Song Trilogy, which also stars Sara Kestelman

In the 1980s, Harvey Fierstein’s Trilogy became the first Broadway hit to focus on gay life. Thirty years later, gay men still get beaten to death on the streets, parents still find it difficult to accept that their child’s sexuality may be different from their own and religious groups still think that a good way to protect their values is to deny gay people the right to affirm theirs.

Yet during much of this pared-down revival there is little sense that the fate of Fierstein’s Jewish drag queen Arnold has a significance beyond his own personal experience.

There has not been a major London production of this ground-breaking show since the 1985 West End production starring Antony Sher. This one, directed by Douglas Hodge and with David Bedella in the role of Arnold, has been reduced from the original four hours to under three. I have never complained that a show is too short, and I am not going to start now.

But as the first part of the trilogy segues into the second, we get little sense of the society and attitudes which oppress these gay, bisexual and heterosexual lives. What we do get is a sense of a man whose yearning for love and a stable relationship is frustrated by a gay culture infatuated with promiscuity.

And what we also get is the impression that Arnold’s love life is less fascinating to those of us watching it than it is to those who are caught up in it. The central theme of the Trilogy, Arnold’s yearning for acceptance, is only properly explored late on, during the third section set in his flat. He confronts his visiting mother (a very convincing Sara Kestelman, who also delivers the evening’s best singing), whose refusal to come to terms with her son’s sexuality provides one of the few moments of real drama.

I suspect that, for many people, the power of the original show lay largely in the curiosity value of seeing people living relatively open gay lives. On that level, at least, times have changed, but the inevitable result is that such depictions are not as fascinating as they once were. (

Last updated: 11:31am, June 18 2012