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Holding the Man - Belvoir St Theatre (NSW)

Text by Tim Conigrave, Stage Adaptation by Tommy Murphy.


Reviewed by Claira Prider

Belvoir St Theatre, Sydney

Playing until April 14


Beautifully crafted and exquisitely portrayed, this production delivers Tim Conigrave’s story in the exact same theatre he was rehearsing his own play in just decades before.


Holding the Man is a quintessential piece of queer Australian literature, a memoir written by Tim Conigrave, published in 1995. Set in late 1970s Australia, the text tells the story of a young man’s fifteen-year gay relationship and the path they carved for the Sydney queer scene. He completed the text ten days before dying from an AIDS related illness in 1994. Eleven years later, playwright Tommy Murphy pitched his stage adaptation of the work which premiered at Griffin Theatre in 2006 to such a successful reception it went on to have further seasons at Sydney Opera House and Belvoir St Theatre.


Directed by Belvoir’s Artistic Director Eamon Flack, the work demonstrates great awareness of the impact the text had on the Australian queer community as well as its importance back then and still in today’s society. From the directors note, he comments on how important the text was for him “But more than anything it was the sense that you’re not alone, that there is a path, many paths, completely different and yet also very much same, that the paths get clearer with each open gay life, each retelling of a gay life, each retelling even of the same two gay lives of Tim and John, who have come to stand in for thousands of Tims and Johns”. Flack’s commitment to Conigrave’s text is apparent and notable in this sensitive and authentic production.


Belvoir St's 'Holding the Man'. Photography by Brett Boardman


Set in the round, there are mismatched 70s era couches on a third side of the stage providing intimate seating that sometimes becomes a part of the work. The back wall is covered in a bright, retro, pink, purple and olive green geometric patterned wallpaper. Apart from a clothes rack, disco ball, sofa and side table, Stephen Curtis’ set is otherwise bare, which sets up an intimate sense of community and connectedness from the beginning. Apart from the school uniforms which seem recent, Mel Page’s costumes are era specific, reflective of the Aussie casual fashions of the time. With ensemble cast cross-dressing as they do quick changes to switch between multiple characters, the costuming doesn’t take itself too seriously and is informative and often funny.  


The work begins when Tim and his crush John attend the same all boys high school, where we’re introduced to the characters in their Xavier Catholic College school uniforms. Both actors brilliantly transform as they age from their teens to their thirties. It was more than just physicality and tone, the chemistry blossoms with their love through the work as they grow from experiencing parents' negative reactions to their relationship, to horny and infatuated, to receiving AIDS diagnoses through to taking their sickly final breaths.


The connection, humanity, friendship, and love symbolic in the work are palpable in the room, a truly special performance to see.

Tom Conroy is superb as Tim Conigrave and does great justice to this flawed and selfish yet genuine, passionate, and loving character. From coming out to his friends, to telling John he thinks he may have given him AIDS, Conroy’s particularly vulnerable moments had me holding my breath in sympathy. He is consistently (almost manically) captivating and has you on his side, even when he’s being a dick. Danny Ball’s portrayal of John is understated, extremely generous and moving. His stillness contrasts greatly with Tim’s spirited character and offers moments to breathe in the story with him, in this otherwise fast paced piece. While their individual performances are outstanding, the connection between Conroy and Ball is what makes the production so successful. Their chemistry is utterly vulnerable and believable, it exemplifies the authentic and achingly beautiful honesty that makes the story so resonant.


Ensemble cast Russel Dykstra, Rebecca Massey, Guy Simon and Shannen Alyce Wuan physically carry the fast-paced work as they each portray many characters. From their physicality to voice, and nuanced personalities, each of these actors are engaging, transformative and easy to follow despite their many quick changes.


Flack’s commitment to Conigrave’s text is apparent and notable in this sensitive and authentic production.

Some of the physical direction felt clunky at times – while I enjoyed its use in the opening scenes, there were concepts that detracted from the intensity and audience connection in the work’s most devastating scene. Alyx Dennison’s composition and sound design combines ethereal, soft, a capella humming with electronic synthesized sounds of the 80s, and Phoebe Pilcher’s lighting design reinforces the emotional tone, transporting us along the emotional rollercoaster with each character.


Tommy Murphy’s stage adaptation of Holding the Man brings a heartfelt Australian story to our stages in Belvoir’s current production. Thirty years on, the text highlights the changes we’ve seen since HIV/AIDS wiped out a generation of men as well as emphasizing how much further we’ve got to go. Beautifully crafted and heart-wrenchingly portrayed (don’t forget the tissues) this production delivers Tim Conigrave’s story in the exact same theatre he was rehearsing his own play in just decades before. The connection, humanity, friendship, and love symbolic in the work are palpable in the room, a truly special performance to see.  


Content Warning: Holding The Man contains strong language, adult themes, nudity and explicit sexual references. Theatrical haze and herbal cigarettes are in use.

 

CAST & CREATIVES


Playwright Tommy Murphy

Original Author Timothy Conigrave

Director Eamon Flack

Set Designer Stephen Curtis

Costume Designer Mel Page

Lighting Designer Phoebe Pilcher

Composer & Sound Designer Alyx Dennison

Choreographer Elle Evangelista

Fight/Movement Director Nigel Poulton

Vocal & Accent Coach Laura Farrell

Associate Sound Designer Matthew James

Aerial Consultant Finton Mahoney

Assistant Director James Elazzi

Community Engagement Coordinator Thinesh Thillainadarajah

Stage Manager Luke McGettigan

Assistant Stage Manager Mia Kanzaki

WAAPA Stage Management Secondment Sam Rechichi

Cast Danny Ball, Tom Conroy, Tim Russell Dykstra, Rebecca Massey, Guy Simon,Shannen Alyce Quan.


 


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