Theo Fraser Steele in A SINGLE MAN: photo by Mitzi de Margary

IN BRIEF: An impressive central performance and acute direction elevate a rather over-simplified adaptation

Troupe have a track record of ambitious, interesting work, and so it was with keenness that I looked forward to this, the first stage adaptation of Christopher Isherwood’s highly-regarded concentrated novella, A SINGLE MAN, his most authentically personal work.  

A SINGLE MAN is an insight into the last day of the life of George, a mature English professor at a California university, living the life that many people would have dreamed of in the early 1960s. Except that George is an outsider in many ways – gay and struggling with grief over his recently deceased partner, Jim. Living in a small home (“hardly enough room to feel lonely”), George is misunderstood at every turn, suffering ignorant and prejudiced neighbours, uneducated students and clinging friends, and like George, all searching for connection.

Through George’s own search for connection and meaning, his encounters allow him to take stock of the past, consider the future, gradually rally and decide to live.

Resolving itself into a long exposition and two extended dialogues, the construction of the play is deceptively simple whilst Simon Reade’s adaptation brings the spirit of the novel – long on thought and discussion, and short on action.

On a stylish yet minimal set, and to a sixties jazz score, the short 110-minute play flies by, despite its leisurely, contemplative pace.

The character of George is eloquently expressed by Theo Fraser Steele, in a dextrous performance which impresses by its very length – a queer Lear, you might call it. Never offstage for more than a moment, his George is informed by that English guardedness which makes it easy for him to be the buttoned-down professor for his students and whatever others want him to be. It is harder to be what he himself needs.

It is in those moments when he allows his guard down that we catch a glimpse of him – momentarily broken by grief, or in his speech to the students about minorities and targets, which shocks us as feeling alarmingly contemporary, despite having been written 60 years ago.

The second act’s two dialogues highlight the past and the future – the first, with longtime friend Charley, blowsy, tipsy and oblivious to the realities of George’s life and experience, (which feels a little overlong). But it is in a seafront bar where student Kenny catches up with George that the play’s intensity ramps up. Freighted with tension, the carefully-choreographed conversation which ensues crackles with opportunity, threat, hope and fear – sometimes simultaneously, faultlessly performed by both actors. (Special mention must be given to Miles Molan, in his stage debut, giving a complex and absorbing performance as Kenny).

Philip Wilson’s thoughtful direction has humanity and subtlety about it, allowing the show’s conflicts to be felt rather than outwardly seen. The Park audience definitely leant in to this production, but at times it felt that we want to get even nearer, which is where the stage can lose out over the screen. However, the nuanced physicality of the second act definitely maximises the work’s impact on the stage.

With its deeply moving yet ultimately comforting conclusion, echoing the cycle of our lives, A SINGLE MAN is a fascinating contrast of age and youth, experience and innocence, life and death, which older audiences especially will resonate with, as I did. Isherwood poignantly reminds us that our lifespan is all too brief, and that what matters most is the life in our years, rather than the years in our life. It is well worth seeing.

A SINGLE MAN runs at Park200 until November 26th. Tickets and more information here

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