Holding the Man | State Theatre Company of South AustraliaLeft – Nic English, Luke Clayson, Ellen Steele and Catherine Fitzgerald. Cover – Luke Clayson and Nic English. Photos – Matt Nettheim

Holding the Man
is hilarious and heartbreaking in equal parts.

The sadness of the story is expected. How could it be anything else? In Tim Conigrave’s and Tommy Murhphy’s hands, it becomes touchingly funny, raucously rude, and deliciously black.

Conigrave, whose autobiography the play is based on, deals with his characters as he does himself – using laughter to mask pain.

Conigrave and the love of his life, John, spent 15 years together, discovering their sexuality, their bodies and how they fit into this world, being accepted by friends and rejected by parents. They survive the questions about what else there could be, exploratory promiscuity, distance and NIDA. They even survive the news they are both HIV positive. For another five years they are together, loving one another, supporting one another, as their bodies fail.

The tone between the two acts shifts markedly. Act 1 is Pre-HIV and Act 2 Post-HIV. The silence is the biggest change. From a world that was frenetic with movement and speech, jokes in every second line, passionate kisses regularly stealing the spotlight, we move into another world. The lights don’t actually change, but we feel like the sunlight is replaced by cold, white fluros flickering above the action. We imagine padded hospital walls deadening the sound. Or perhaps there is just nothing to say.

We have become so attached to the characters, to goofy Tim with his walls of humour and sweet John, awkward and so lovable. For us, their sadness is traumatic. Yet we can hardly imagine the true suffering.

As our protagonist, Tim, Luke Clayson wonderfully carries him from youth to a man whom life has dealt with harshly. He is powerless to do anything but laugh in its face. Clayson begins as an awkward, gangly youth who hides behind his humour, barely concealing the sweet vulnerability of a boy in love. Full of passion, full of curiosity, Tim’s choices take him far away from John, yet nothing could hold them apart for long. After learning the diagnosis, John quickly starts to fade. Tim becomes detached from the world, and the harsh facade is strengthened, the light dying inside.

Nic English as John, Tim’s lover of 15 years, is utterly adorable, right down to his dorky walk. He creates a John who stands on the outer of Tim’s theatrical world, unable to enter yet loving him always, even throughout separation and infidelity. English somehow captures the feeling of this young man, his masculinity and his gentleness, his straight-forward nature and determined love for Tim alone.

The ensemble of four provide brilliant and hilarious support for the lovers. Juggling multiple roles each, they master both the humour and sadness of the different characters, differentiating between each without any confusion – quite an achievement for so many characters!

Geoff Revell plays the father you want to strangle, the revolutionary gay uni friend with all the gags, another father controlling pain and anger, and an eagerly self-pleasuring teen. He plays each whole-heartedly and believably, bringing a world of experience to each role.

Catherine Fitzgerald also masters her cast of roles, switching from the tired yet supportive mother to a delicious dominatrix. Changing from mother to teenage friend in a sentence, her apparent enjoyment of the work heightens the performance’s vibrant tone.

Nick Pelomis shines as the mother we can all picture, who responds “Lovely” to any and every statement, never seen without a bright pair of earrings. A slightly hairier version, Pelomis is delightful as the mother of Juliet, Tim’s school friend, both in her funniest moments then in the tenderest, when she stands up to John’s bullying father. Pelomis also plays John’s one-time lover, Peter, with brevity and honesty.

Juliet is beautifully played by Ellen Steele, the only girl Tim ever could have loved, who adored and supported him throughout their friendship. She plays a teenage boy and typical drama teacher with equal flair.

The talent and versatility of the cast enables this ambitious casting to enhance the brilliance of the play, doing credit to each character while heightening the focus placed on the two solo-players, Clayson and English. Director Rosalba Clemente has done an exceptional job of managing the character transitions and development, and manipulating the space of the theatre to create a sense of community, then isolation. Actors can be seen waiting in the wings, watching the performance, or can disappear upstage into darkness. Clemente has made Holding the Man a seamless and remarkable whole.

For their last production of the year, the State Theatre presents us with some of their very best theatre; inspiring, passionate, brilliant and heartbreaking.

State Theatre Company SA presents
by Tommy Murphy from the book by Timothy Conigrave

Director Rosalba Clemente

Venue: Dunstan Playhouse
Dates: 21 Oct 2011 – 13 Nov 2011
Tickets: $49.00 – $29.00
Bookings: http://www.bass.net.au

Most read Adelaide reviews

The bewildering confusion between dream and reality begins before one takes one’s seat in the...

The cast of one is Robyn Nevin, and it was no surprise that her performance was riveting.

The revelation of this concert to me was that, yes, musicians, like audiences, have been starved...

What a Pulse the acrobats exhibited! What unanimity, what complicity in their formation and...

This long and interesting concert was structured around Schoenberg’s extraordinary setting of 21...