Review: A SINGLE MAN

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


Review: THIS ISLAND’S MINE

THIS ISLAND’S MINE at Kings Head Theatre until June 8th, details here

IN BRIEF Ambitious production of epic multi-strand drama whose breadth restricts its depth, but maximised by hard-working cast and direction.

First things first – it’s refreshing to see a play about gay people that includes both men and women. And how interesting that to find this mix we have to thank this play from 1988, now receiving a loving revival (its first ever) from Ardent Theatre and director/designer Philip Wilson.

There is a lot packed into its 105 mins running time (straight through). Teenage Luke runs away from his family to stay with his gay uncle Martin; a lesbian couple have trouble with their young son and jealousy; an actor and chef experience turbulence in their relationship. All face pressure of prejudice upon them involving sexuality/ race/ sex. Meanwhile, Martin’s old landlady reflects on her life and the prejudice she has seen, while caring for her elderly cat.

The play follows them all episodically as their stories intertwine and create a fast-paced narrative that uncovers many unexpected links. There is a lot within its pages- humour, tenderness, longing, sadness, awakenings, which contribute to a well-told story threaded through with humanity.

However, the play’s inclusivity in terms of characters and storylines comes at the cost of depth. This limits the audience’s connections with the characters, which is a pity as when the writing slows down and gives itself room to breathe, it is a delight to listen to Osment’s lyrical language, and as such these moments catch you by surprise and cause a reassessment of the play.

A lot of Osment’s script involves the characters breaking the fourth wall, explaining the narrative, locations, feelings and situations. This moving in and out of character, combined with the fact that the actors double -or mostly triple -up on roles played, mean that the play can feel very fragmented. This can create distance for an audience, however I must say that the audience I was with were concentrating from start to finish, which is a tribute to director Wilson’s carefully thought out approach and the energy of the cast.

What marks out this production is the clarity with which the director has presented the many strands of story in what could otherwise have felt like a very tangled text. The production is also ambitious technically, with an attractive, simple yet flexible set design which works well within the many confines of the Kings Head Theatre.  Rachel E Cleary’s sophisticated lighting design works stylishly, and the evocative soundscape by Dinah Mullen brings a welcome texture to the variety of environments created.

Pleasingly cyclic, the play ends as it starts, with teenage Luke on his home ground, just a little older, a bit wiser and a little more hopeful. THIS ISLAND’S MINE is an endearing tapestry of outsider stories, effectively woven by director Wilson and enacted by a tight ensemble cast that work hard (ditto the props and costume teams) to bring the multitude of characters to distinctive life. And as a reminder of how things have changed- or haven’t- this is a valuable wake-up call that we still have to fight those old battles every day.


THIS ISLAND’S MINE runs at the Kings’s Head Theatre, London, until June 8th. Details and tickets here