‘Tis the season for Broadway’s queer history to fill London’s smaller theatres apparently. From Torch Song at the Turbine and also William Finn and James Lapine’s Falsettos playing at Andrew Lloyd Webber’s incubator theatre, The Other Palace. And similarly to Torch Song, this is another show made up of smaller one-act plays – now united into a whole narrative.
A typical American Jewish family in the 70s, well except they’re not ‘typical’ as dad Marvin (Daniel Boys) is gay and dating Whizzer (Oliver Saville). Marvin recommends his wife Trina (played by understudy Natasha O’Brien on the night I reviewed) see his therapist Mendel (Joel Montague) and things just get messy from there. Meanwhile their son Jason (Elliot Morris on the night in question) is just trying to grow up like a normal kid.
Act One, set in the late 70s is full of life and comedic high-jinx in a classic sit-com style. You almost gloss over some of the most problematic elements (for example, Mendel abuses his position as therapist to both Marvin and Trina to seduce her and no one bats an eyelid). Marvin is on a journey of self-discovery and it’s not always fun for those around him. You see, Marvin is a man of his time (i.e. sexist, borish, entitled) and needs life to knock him down a few pegs. He traded his dutiful wife in for a pretty boyfriend who he expects to cook and clean after him.
The first act treads that fine line of milking the situation for humour without condoning the behaviours. Marvin is an asshole, and not always a comedic, lovable one. Daniel Boys plays him as a messed up fallible man who is struggling to change – it’s not always easy to root for him, but you don’t despise him either. Mendel’s love for Trina is more problematic, thankfully the production isn’t attempting to be naturalistic at all, giving you room to gloss over the abuse of power.
The highlight is Trina’s anthem ‘I’m Breaking Down’. Anyone who was upset that the excellent Laura Pitt-Pulford (who normally plays Trina) was absent this evening quickly moved on, as Natasha O’Brien delivered the night’s standout moment. A brilliant performance, enhanced by director Tara Overfield-Wilkinson’s choreography.
The whole cast really relish William Finn’s score and the songs sound great in the space. PJ McEvoy’s set is bold and functional, but a little clinical at times. An over use of (pixelated) projections lets the design down.
The show starts to sag a bit in the second act as the action moves to the early 90s. Where act one was blissfully pre-AIDS, act two is set in the middle of the crisis. Marvin (now single), Trina and Mendel are planning Jason’s bah-mitzvah, with the help of a lesbian couple next door, when Whizzer comes back into their lives. The sitcom fun of act one is replaced by a sense of earnestness that doesn’t sit as well with production’s aesthetic. Where act one feels well observed and full of character, act two feels swamped with the weighty issues it’s trying to tackle. It’s clear this act was written in a very different time and place to the opening act.
While this production never quite nails the unusual concoction that is Falsettos, it’s still a good night at the theatre. Great songs sung by a terrific cast, filled with heart and humour. As a chronicle of gay theatre both pre and post AIDS it’s a fascinating case study. One almost wishes Finn and Lapine would take a Linklater ‘Before Trilogy’ approach to these characters and see where they are today.
Falsettos plays at The Other Palace, London till November 23.