This uneven play based on Christopher Isherwood’s book has a strong cast at its centre -but the way in which the story is told lacks enough depth that the plot deserves.
Having been made into a film starring Colin Firth in 2009, it seems extraordinary that this story of grief and moving forward in life after the loss of a loved one has not been transformed into a play before now. However, it feels as though this production doesn’t quite do the story itself justice – with even the adaptation feeling slight and clinical instead of getting to the real heart of these relatable themes.
Set in LA during the 1960’s, professor George is mourning the loss of his partner Jim and struggling to move forward with his life even as he attempts to go about his day to day life. He is an isolated character and the audience is drawn into one day of his life and how he interacts with those around him – particularly with one of his students Kenny, who he seems to be able to open up to.
Adapted for the stage by Simon Reade, somehow this is a script that doesn’t flow easily and it is extremely difficult to get a handle on any of the characters at all – excepting George, with whom it is instantly easy to sympathise with. Following a really rather lengthy opening sequence in which we see George preparing for the day ahead, the play moves briskly and highlighting the the prejudice that George has to deal with (albeit in a slight way) as well as how withdrawn he is not only because of his grief but also because he has to keep certain parts of himself hidden, doubling that sense of isolation he has from the world. In this regard both Reade’s adaptation and Philip Wilson’s production is successful particularly in the first act.
The other issue that I had with this adaptation, is that although George is grieving the loss of Jim, we are never given more than fleeting insights into their relationship as George sees them in his mind. It is a real shame as it would have given an additional emotional impact to the weight of grief that George feels
Wilson handles the story very delicately – but it means that there is very little dramatic impact or emotional connection to the story, particularly as characters seem to float in and out of scenes. Although I wasn’t quite sure of the purpose of the second act spending so much focus on George’s friendship with Charley, this did attempt to add a little more depth to proceedings as the two characters make clear just how lonely and isolated they are and how much in many ways they depend on each other. I would have been interested to see more moments with Charley included as well as those with Kenny – the connection between all three characters could have been given more detail and allowed the audience to get closer to them all.
The depth of despair and isolation is reflected well thanks to Caitlin Abbott’s stark and grim looking set design and Peter Harrison’s subtle lighting design, keeping the world in which George is living within himself effectively alive.
Performance wise, the cast do their best with the somewhat slight and all over the place script and deliver some strong performances. At the centre of it all, Theo Fraser Steele as George, perfectly captures the introverted nature of the way in which George is living his life and you can almost feel the weight of grief on him – it is a nicely nuanced performance. There is also great work from the ensemble cast – with Phoebe Pryce who plays a variety of characters being a particular stand out, while Olivia Darnley really sparkles as Charley capturing her liveliness and loneliness in a nicely balanced way.
It is just a shame that it all feels a little bit flimsy and lacking in depth as it should do to make this supremely humane and sensitive story translate well onto the stage. It could really work but further work is needed on it.
By Emma Clarendon
A Single Man continues to play at the Park Theatre until the 26th November.