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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at Menier Chocolate Factory


It is amazing – and disturbing – how little has changed since Harvey Fierstein's heartfelt plea for gays to be accepted was first seen in 1978. Gay men are still beaten to death on the streets for being gay and parents still refuse to accept the sexuality of their children if it's different from their own.

Both examples of prejudice indelibly inform the life of Fierstein's gay, Jewish hero Arnold (David Bedella), who we first encounter as a lovelorn but loving drag artist. He finds gratification of the sexual, though not emotional, kind in the back rooms of nightclubs. One such tryst, with bisexual Ed (Joe McFadden) promises to blossom into the kind of stable relationship that sensitive Arnold yearns for. But Ed is more concerned about conforming to his family's expectations than Arnold's hopes, and so Ed marries a woman.

Section two of Fierstein's three-piece suite sees Arnold and his all-American blond boyfriend (Tom Rhys) staying with Ed and his wife Laurel (Laura Pyper) for a weekend of sophisticated platonic friendship that leads to sexual betrayal. The dialogue is conducted as a sort of bed ballet with each protagonist popping up from under the duvet when the play demands. And the final section in Fierstein's Tony-winning trilogy – pared down here from the original four hours to a less intimidating two and a half – sees Arnold mature and become the adoptive parent of David (a camp-as-Christmas Perry Millward). David is an alienated, gay teenager in much need of the stable, loving home life provided by the increasingly matriarchal Arnold. 

Paradoxically, it was this rather sitcommy section of Fierstein's trilogy that broke new ground when it was first seen with the author playing the role of Arnold. Gay life hadn't been depicted in all its banality before. It was interesting, exciting even, to see gays cope with the rhythms of domestic living, unruly teenagers and visiting mothers. Although with Ed still present in Arnold's life – albeit now disillusioned with marriage and sleeping on Arnold's sofa – Arnold's love life is as complex as it ever was.

Unfortunately for this revival directed by Douglas Hodge (whose previous work for the Menier Chocolate Factory was on stage in a brilliant revival of Fierstein's other bold depiction of gay life, La Cage Aux Folles), there is no longer anything revelatory in showing gay men eat breakfast and put out the trash. 

If Fierstein's trilogy is a plea for acceptance – serenaded by classic torchsongs of yearning and loss – his point is only specifically made late on when Arnold's widower mother Mrs Beckoff visits Arnold's apartment. Up until then, Arnold's messy emotional life never feels as if it has significance beyond the people who are involved with it. Often it's tedious. And even the intolerance of Mrs Beckoff – who embodies the Jewish progressive attitudes in which Arnold was raised and the Jewish conservative attitudes that prevent her from accepting her son's sexuality – feels here like an issue that needs to be addressed by the Beckoffs rather than in front of us, the audience. 

It's not that acceptance for gays is no longer an issue (although it's surely not as big an issue as it once was), nor that gay people still don't have to fight for equal rights, but the arguments have been made so convincingly and for so long, that anyone seeing this show in 2012 is likely to leave with exactly the same attitudes that they went in with. Arnold's condition now feels particular to him rather than representative of a community. On that level, Fierstein's play is fatally dated. Or put another way, a lot has changed since 1978.


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