Review by Sam Waite
Simon Reade's new adaptation of the Isherwood novella is now playing at the Park Theatre, an intimate space well-suited to an intimate story. While the text itself is a questionable choice for the stage, the strong cast and calibre of the author - Isherwood penned the basis for Cabaret, and A Single Man was famously adapted for Tom Ford's film debut - provide strong moments in an inconsistent new play.
This new adaptation of Christopher Isherwood’s A Single Man opens identically to its source material – an unnamed body, barely human, slowly awakens and constructs itself into what those around him recognise as George, an English professor in both subject and birthplace. As other members of the cast speak Isherwood’s words almost verbatim, leading man Theo Fraser Steele goes through the first of his impressive transformations – from blank and almost lifeless to the rigid, unflinching façade of, “More or less George,” a middle-aged man grieving his lover, Jim.
While there is an awkwardness to what amounts to the small cast reading the novel’s opening to us, Steele’s performance does a better job of presenting George, at once going through another day pushing grief aside, and performing whichever “George” people expect to see. The framing narration, whose costumes and presentation make more sense in the finale than the opening, begs the question of whether such an inward-looking piece of writing lends itself to the stage. Thankfully Steele’s ability to transform himself, to change how he presents himself while never fully leaving the stage, helps convey the constant internal monologue.
Caitlin Abbott’s set is minimalistic and unobtrusive, lending itself well to the idea of George writing the story in the back of his mind while some other version of him lives it. Meanwhile the costumes, also by Abbott – simple, everyday wear for the period – let us know from the start that this is the 1960’s, and that our characters are ordinary folk and nothing more. Abbott’s work serves the simple plot well and helps to create distinctions between people and places without having to overwhelm the smaller space.
While the set is subtly transformed, George often re-breaks the fourth wall to either narrate or ponder. Sometimes this is effective and even funny, but other times it feels as awkward as it did at the start. Director Phillip Wilson has made clear, decisive choices with his characters’ motivations and uses their physical positioning to great effect elsewhere, making it seems like an afterthought that George spends some of these moments wandering aimlessly wherever the stage is least occupied.
The set-pieces are moved around the stage by a quartet of actors who enter and re-enter throughout, adapting their physicality and mannerisms to represent the various people George encounters over the play’s 24-hour setting. Like their leading man, these four young actors are capable of transformations at the drop of a hat.
Olivia Darnley, used fleetingly otherwise, is stellar as Charley, George’s friend with whom he relents to have supper. Darnley and Steele’s friendship is fully believable as they both banter with and denounce one another. Elsewhere a moving and too-brief scene allows Phoebe Bryce – elsewhere a well-meaning mother and an overloaded schoolgirl – to demonstrate both delicacy and a quiet, furious power as Doris, a hospital patient who is living with a much different grief than the one George can’t let go of.
Of the two boys, and the ensemble overall, Freddie Gaminara seems to have drawn the short straw. He acquits himself well to his handful of parts – homophobic neighbour, ignorant bartender, student – but none of them allow for any real depth. The cast is rounded out by Miles Molan, making his stage debut, who demonstrates silently his devotion and admiration as Jim, or at least Jim as George remembers him now. Later, he brings likeability and command of his body to Kenny Potter, a boundary-straddling student who is at once confident in his own skin and deeply aware of how much George can teach him even outside of the classroom. His scenes with Steele have a palpable intimacy and keep the audience guessing as to whether this is a platonic, sexual, or almost paternal relationship beginning to form.
Credited as an adaptor rather than a playwright, Simon Reade seems to have approached this iteration with an awareness of the novel’s insular nature and has trimmed out scenes and reordered thoughts and dialogue accordingly. The neighbours, for example, have all their moments early on, to not force an awkward re-entry for them towards the end. Still, the detached narration which bookends the piece plays awkwardly on stage. Reade does a marvellous job where the stage is shared with other characters – George’s lecture, his evening with Charley and visit to Maria are highlights – and this added to my wondering of whether this was simply the wrong piece to adapt.
But even though there is an awkwardness to the introduction and a too-quick detachment at the finale, what happens in-between is often good and sometimes deeply affecting. While it isn’t a perfect adaptation, I’m not sure that such a thing could exist for A Single Man. The play is more direct a reflection of Isherwood’s story than Tom Ford’s film version, and while far from perfect has a talented cast and some moments of outstanding character work which may well be worth the entry price themselves.
A SIngle Man is at the Park Theatre until November 26th. Tickets from http://www.parktheatre.co.uk/
Photos by Mitzi de Margary