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Holding the Man (Jack Studio Theatre, London): Review

Holding the Man D'awwww. Christopher Hunter (left) and Paul-Emile Forman (right). Photograph: Courtesy of Nicolas Chinardet.

A sweepingly sweet and humbly heartbreaking production of Tommy Murphy’s adaptation of Holding the Man: the memoirs of Timothy Coingrave.

Timothy grew up in rural Australia. Although living in a conservative and religious community, he still fell in love with a boy at school, despite the outrage of his parents. Holding the Man charts Coingrave’s life and life-long relationship with John Caleo.

holding the man

Hotline. The cast of ‘Holding the Man’. (left),Photograph: Courtesy of Nicolas Chinardet.

Adaptation

Wow. It’s a Tommy Murphy double bill in London at the moment. Up north, you can catch the five-star “pulse-racing caprice” that is Stranger in Between at the King’s Head Theatre, whilst southeast the Jack Studio Theatre is currently staging Holding the Man: Murphy’s adaptation of the memoirs of Timothy Coingrave (which was also made into a film of the same name). Strewth! It’s a gay Aussie invasion. But whilst Strangers in Between is funny and fiendish fiction, how does Holding the Man hold up as a stage adaptation of an actual person’s life?

The key to Murphy’s writing here is its honesty. Scenes, people, and scenarios are just as is, but are warmed and coloured by Murphy’s realistic character writing. Straight from the beginning, you feel that the central pair, Tim and John, are real: there isn’t any pretence, contrivance, and strangeness. It’s just Tim and John as two people coping with growing up in a small-minded small town, and then living their lives as adults. It’s just as well that they feel real, because, of course, they were! But what Murphy does is explore the relationship and interactions with a deft sense detail and interest. Tim, especially, is a conflicted character, torn between love, desire, and sexual liberation, but also a crushing amount of guilt for the suffering he causes John. Likewise, Murphy’s realismism doesn’t shy away from hilarious adolescent smut at one point, but neither does it try to make things that don’t turn out as you’d expect, such as where Tim finds support after coming out, dramatic, pointed, or even under/over-played; everything is natural and organic. Because of this, we don’t just watch the characters, we connect with them and resonate with their motives and feelings.

On the flip-side, parts of Holding the Man is quite theatrical and stylised, such as Tim receiving feedback from his play turning nightmarishly into a medical discussion about his condition. Whilst different from Murphy’s otherwise naturalistic approach to Holding the Man, these moments illustrate certain plot points and the feeling’s around them incredibly well, without ever distancing you from the characters.

Overall, you care deeply about Tim and John throughout Holding the Man. Whilst Coingrave’s memoirs are interesting and colourful enough as they are, Murphy’s treatment makes them riveting. By the end of the play, no-one has escaped Holding the Man’s emotional devastation, and the feeling of loss is almost personal once Holding the Man finishes.

Direction and Production

There’s a very sweet little production behind Holding the Man, by Big Boots Theatre Company. There are pretty much no bells or whistles, but a very simple production where everything, including the plethora of character and costume changes, take place in the seemingly empty space. At times, Sebastian Palka’s direction really relishes in the unbridled fun and stylisation of some of Holding the Man’s moments, especially in Act I, that enhances the sense of fun. Synchronised dances and over-the-top characters don’t fail to bring grins to the audience’s faces, adding verve and energy along the way. Palka also makes sure that more heart-breaking moments of Act II are tender, quiet, and intensely intimate, and the end result is one of sheer emotional obliteration. Interestingly, although nothing but a bed and a litter of props and costumes, there is nearly never the same plotting (set-up) twice, giving a very subtle sense of visual variety to Holding the Man. Despite the bare stage, nothing ever looks old or familiar, giving the scope of locations in Holding the Man a sense of difference, even if it’s a case of just facing the bed a different way to before.

However, there is some playing of Murphy’s stylisation that don’t quite work and feel all too out of joint, jerking you too much out of the realism you’ve gotten into, and some just don’t quite work at all. Then, some of the scene-changes aren’t too slick, meaning that the energy between them is broken and sometimes laboured, jolting you out of the reverie Holding the Man otherwise casts. A bit more could be done with the lighting design, too, to really try and differentiate between time and place, especially as Holding the Man’s timeline does take some significant jumps between scenes. Sometimes it’s not clear that we’ve moved on several years from the moment just before, and you spend the first couple of minutes figuring that out rather than getting into the scene itself.

But regardless, these never significantly mar the production or the performances, though they do stop Holding the Man from being perfect. But the production still does its job on many levels. Although, in saying that, the only way you could do a bad production of Holding the Man is if you completely fail to empathise with the text, subject, and characters, and try to force out of it something that isn’t there. Thankfully, Palka, Big Boots Theatre Companym and its actors, entirely get what Coingrave is trying to illustrate about his life, love, and loss, and thus pulls off Holding the Man with an incredible and engrossing warmth.

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Bedtime story. The cast of ‘Holding the Man’. Photograph: Courtesy of Nicolas Chinardet.

Performances

Christopher Hunter and Paul-Emile Forman make a fine central pair. Much like Murphy’s characterisation, they’re very natural performers to the point it’s almost as if they’re not acting; they really both feel like real people going about real love and life. To do this, the closeness and conflicts between them are never dramatic or theatrical. There are no huge arguments, but instead pointed disappointments. Instead of grand theatrical romances, there’s a subtly of smiles and light touches.

Forman is incredibly adoring and doting, whilst playing long-suffering and forgiving with a gracious demeanour that actually brings his commitment to Tim as a remarkable strength rather than a weakness. Hunter also gives a strong and complex performance as Tim, really getting across the guilt and conflict of his actions, But Hunter also plays the endearing irritation of Tim’s hubris and selfishness very well, making him simultaneously unlikable but charismatically likeable, and thus compelling to watch.

Despite the strength of the two central performances, the rest of the cast slightly upstage them with some stunning ensemble work. The supporting cast, Dickon Farmar, Emma Zadow, Marla-Jane Lynch, and Sam Goodchild, are so good at switching between all of Holding the Man’s characters, from ludicrous to life-like, that you often forget that the lifetime of people in Tim and John’s life are always the same four actors, really making Holding the Man an all-round great production.

Verdict

Bring something/someone to hold on to as Holding the Man is enthrallingly entertaining and deeply emotional.

Holding the Man plays at the Jack Studio Theatre, London, SE4 2DH, until 4 February 2017. Tickets are £15 (concessions available). To book, visit www.brockleyjack.co.uk.