Holding the Man | Griffin Theatre Company(l-r) Matt Zeremes and Guy Edmonds. Photos - Robert McFarlane

Around the time I completed school and subsequently left home back in the late ‘90s, I remember hearing about Timothy Conigrave’s book Holding The Man through a friend and flatmate who had read it twice already and was about to embark on a third go round. Having already been awarded a Human Rights Award for Non-Fiction by the United Nations in 1995, the book appeared to be The Da Vinci Code of its time for gay men in Australia. Eight years later, its continued success led to a place on the Australian Society of Authors list of "100 Favourite Australian Books", not to mention the bookshelves of many more of my friends. However, in spite of an ongoing desire to read it, I have yet to do so. When it comes to fiction novels, I tend to lazily await a film adaptation or - in the case of Holding The Man - the play. After last night’s moving and surprisingly hilarious performance, I’m finally inspired to pick up the book and read this tragic love story.

Adapted for the stage in 2006 by Tommy Murphy, Holding The Man broke records for the Griffin Theatre Company before moving on to sell-out seasons at the Sydney Opera Houseand Belvoir St Theatre. Having earned Best Play awards at the NSW Premier’sLiterary Awards and from the Australian Writers’ Guild, the show reached a milestone 150th performance on Wednesday night when it commenced a limited run in Brisbane. It is the city in which stars Guy Edmonds and Matt Zeremes (in the roles of Conigrave and Caleo, respectively) were recent graduates from QUT and was a sell-out performance not to be missed. Generating persistent howls of laughter, mischievous snickering at unexpectedly crass humour and visible tears from many in the audience, Holding The Man had it all.

Named for an Aussie Rules football infringement (you learn something new every day), the story is an autobiographical account of Timothy Conigrave’s fifteen-year romance with John Caleo. In an all-boys Catholic school, circa 1970s, the Romeo & Juliet stage performer and the school football captain with a dream of playing for Essendon graduated high school officially recognised in the yearbook as ‘the year’s cutest couple’. In the face of self-acceptance, parental disapproval, social rejection, geographical distance and infidelity, the romance ended with Caleo’s AIDS-related death in 1992. Conigrave followed in 1995, shortly after completing the memoir.

It’s a tale that could easily have been little more than a clichéd, issues-based public service announcement but Holding The Man rises above the two-dimensional characteristics that often plague narratives about gay romance. Not only is the central character of Tim Conigrave portrayed as a complete and well-rounded personality - lovable inspite of his flaws and infidelities - the supporting cast provides top quality entertainment in multiple roles that border on the unexpectedly cartoonish but contrast well against otherwise grim subject matter. Jeanette Cronin (in no less than twelve roles, including Conigrave’s mother) steals the show with her riotous enthusiasm, proving her Sydney Theatre Award for Best Supporting Actress was well and truly deserved.

With a running time of almost three hours, Holding The Man does - at times - feel bogged down by its lofty ambitions. This is less to do with playwright Tommy Murphy’s devotion to the original text, as may be expected, and more to do with a sparse set that rarely changes beyond some musical chairs and rearranging of mirrors. Short o fbeing a multi-million dollar Broadway production, of course, the jam-packed story may not have been expressed any other way and - for this reason - it is a forgivable drawback. My one and only genuine complaint would be that the lead character of John Caleo is frustratingly under-developed. Given the central climax of his story and the fact he represents an individual so unlike the gay stereotype, his introduction in particular is far from convincing. The is-he-or-isn’t-he flirting that would have made a ‘straight-acting’ teenage footballer’s decision to pursue a relationship with another male so engaging was ultimately told rather than shown. This is not to suggest Matt Zermes is at fault, of course - he is a fine actor. Rather, it felt as though the material simply wasn’t there to draw from.

Ultimately, this is the story of Timothy Conigrave and - as such - it is a fitting tribute to a man whose brevity and positivity in the face of love, death and enduring heartache continues to speak to a generation. If you can still get tickets, I suggest you do so now. Holding The Man is uplifting, hilarious, tragic and one not to be missed.

Brisbane Powerhouse presents
Produced by Griffin Theatre Company and toured by Performing Lines
Adapted by Tommy Murphy from the book by Timothy Conigrave

Venue: Powerhouse Theatre
Date: Wed 5 – Sun 9 March
Time: Wed 6:30pm, Thurs – Sat 7:30pm + Sun 5pm
Tickets: $40(f) - $34(c) - $30(g)
Bookings: 07 3358 8600 or brisbanepowerhouse.org

Warning: Contains strong language, sexual references and adult themes. Not suitable for children.

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