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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Holding The Man
Trafalgar Studios  Spring 2010

In 1972 Australian schoolboy Timothy Conigrave developed a crush on school football star John Caleo. Tommy Murphy's funny, inventive and moving play is based on Tim's book about what happened next.

Improbably, John returned his love. Even more improbably, their schoolmates at the Catholic school, their Jesuit teachers, their friends, their friends' parents and three out of four of their parents (John's father being the holdout) were all OK with their romance and all supported them.

Except for a few years in the 1980s when their studies separated them and Tim got caught up in the promiscuous bars-and-baths Sydney gay life, they were together until John's AIDS-related death in 1992.

Tim finished his book just before dying in 1994, the book became a best-seller, and Murphy's stage version has been a hit since its premiere in 2006.

The first half of the play is a delighted and delightful romp, using all the tools of exuberant theatricality to celebrate the (pun unavoidable) fairy tale that is Tim and John's youthful romance.

Guy Edmonds and Matt Zeremes from the original 2006 production play Tim and John and a supporting cast of four double and redouble as Everyone Else, often without regard to actor-role gender consistency.

The sheer fun of the fluid movement through time and the quick changes of costumes and wigs helps celebrate the innocence and naturalness of the boys' love (and overcome or distract us from any doubts we may have about there being no self-questioning, no encounters with homophobia, no real obstacles to the boys' idyllic happiness).

A lot of the fun comes from the way Tim's focus on his own story does not keep him from insightful and often delightfully bitchy observation of the world around him, whether it be teenage boys (some played by actresses) talking sex, the self-parodying archetypes at the first gay bar the boys venture into, or the way a suburban mother instantly tells us all about herself by pouring a glass of wine from a cardboard box.

A lot more comes from playwright Murphy and director David Berthold's staging, employing small and large puppets, onstage costume changes, and a sharp eye for the changes in hairstyles and clothing through the years to keep the visuals lively and fun.

Inevitably things turn darker early in the second act when both men are diagnosed with HIV, and some of the play's energy is lost in the change from celebratory comedy to serious drama.

But almost in passing we get a gay history of Australia in the AIDS years, as Tim was involved in one of the first university gay and lesbian groups (and there's a nice throwaway gag in the way the men dominate the meeting) and one of the first telephone help lines, and wrote the country's first play to deal with the illness.

Touches of theatrical imagination remain, now more moving than mirth-provoking, as when the hospitalised John's IV tubes turn into marionette's strings, and when the actor is replaced in bed by a life-sized puppet to indicate that the man himself has already left the dying shell.

The two leads are impeccable, though one might have to read the book to know that Tim was more 'out' and flamboyant than Guy Edmonds plays him. The Everyone Elses - Jane Turner, Anna Skellern, Simon Burke and Oliver Farnworth - contribute significantly to both the fun and the drama with their inventive and generous performances.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of Holding The Man - Trafalgar Studios 2010

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