Brockley Jack Studio Theatre 17 January – 4 February. Reviewed by Claire Roderick
Holding The Man is a beautiful and heart-breaking love story about the relationship between Timothy Conigrave and John Caleo. Based on Conigrave’s book, written for Caleo after his death, Tommy Murphy’s play manages to put the audience through the emotional wringer without losing the uniquely Australian humour.
Tim takes us through his memories of John, from their first sweet flirtation in geography class, university and life together until John’s death. We see their families’ reactions to their relationship, their tentative first steps into gay nightlife, and the effects of HIV. Theatrical Tim – who eventually gets into NIDA (resulting in a brilliant mickey take of drama classes) obviously loves John, but is constantly searching for excitement and new experiences. His sexual adventures are handled uncompromisingly, with Tim narrating each scene with an unapologetic but self-aware matter-of-factness. There are times when you want to scream at John to dump this idiot, but then the next memory portrayed demonstrates the love between the two men and all is forgiven. Christopher Hunter as Tim and Paul-Emile Forman as John are just gorgeous. Forman exudes so much strength through little smiles and looks, and dominates the stage, even when standing silently, while Hunter manages to keep Tim frustratingly likeable, even when he is being a total arse, and his grief and guilt is devastatingly believable in the latter part of the play.
Maria Jane Lynch, Dickon Farmar, Emma Zadow and Sam Goodchild play the characters from Tim’s memories, using minimal costume changes (apart from the club scene – fab-u-lous) and props to great effect. Goodchild’s turn as Juliet’s mother had the audience in stitches before he’d even opened his mouth. The ensemble provides a colourful and engaging world for the story to develop.
The second act, with AIDS related illnesses and John’s eventual death, is necessarily slower paced and darker, but there are still many moments of absurd and gallows humour. The unflinching reality of their illness is constantly present, with medical statistics and diagnoses being thrown at Tim by doctors, but this never strays into preachy or docudrama territory.
Holding The Man is a fantastic piece of theatre, director Sebastian Palka has created a sympathetic and stunning representation of Tim’s memories, and the stellar cast bring a lump to your throat and tears to your eyes. Go and see it. Take tissues.