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Review: Holding the Man at Belvoir Theatre

By: undefined undefinedMarch 31, 2024

March 30, 2024

Belvoir St Theatre

Review by Paul Neeson (Arts Wednesday)

Holding the Man: Danny Ball & Tom Conroy (Photo Brett Boardman)

Holding the Man is the memoir of Timothy Conigrave, written after the death of his lover John Caleo from AIDS in 1992, and published a few months after his own death two years later. It tells the story of their 15 year love affair, an intense and in some ways rocky but devoted relationship beginning in the 1970s at a Jesuit boys school and goes on to journal the progression of the HIV/Aids epidemic in Australia – Conigrave pulls no punches telling it as it happened, down to every snog and pneumonic cough, every detail is on the stage. The driving force behind the story is their love for each other. Even as it goes off track, their dedication is what compels them to continue. And thus it has become a beacon of gay literature, particularly in Australia but also in other western countries where the play has been staged. 

This play was adapted for stage by Tommy Murphy in 2006 and Eamon Flack directs this production which brings the story more into today’s context.

The two leads Tom Conroy (Tim) and Danny Ball (John) portray the love story with real affection in all its intimate and often graphic detail. If you didn’t know beforehand, by the end of the play you would understand enough of the physical and mechanical workings of gay male sex to start dating confidently. They are two different characters who find each other at age fifteen and throughout the play negotiate what a gay relationship can be despite all the societal and familial obstacles. 

A word of praise to Stephen Curtis (set design) and Mel Page (costume design) who take us on a sometimes nostalgic and occasionally cringe-worthy (did we really dress like that?) journey through the objects and fashion of the 70s, 80s and 90s.  

Belvoir: Holding the Man (Photo Brett Boardman)

Yet it was the ensemble cast (stalwarts Russell Dykstra and Rebecca Massey along with Guy Simon and Shannen Alyce Quan) who brought the colour and energy to the production. Between them they must have played 20 or more different characters. Because the time span of the story is 15 years, many people came in and out of Tim and John’s lives. Each actor had sometimes as little as 30 seconds to re-dress and re-set for the next new character. And the play moved very quickly. Hats off to Eamon Flack for keeping it all on track.

Also special mention goes to Elle Evangelista (Choreographer) and Nigel Poulton (Fight/Movement Director). Keeping the physical action up to the intense speed was achieved with flair, and the job also involved teaching the willing (if only amateur) audience some disco chair-dance steps. Those scenes in particular were given an extra veracity by Phoebe Pilcher (Lighting Designer) and Alyx Dennison (Composer & Sound Designer).

Belvoir: Holding the Man (Photo Brett Boardman)

All in all this production is well-worthy of furthering the Holding the Man legacy. It is set in a specific time and place but the themes are timeless. Star-crossed lovers who struggle against the odds and despite their best intentions it all still ends in tragedy. (There were some audible sobs and sniffles in the final scenes). It is a story of an epidemic which echoes in today’s COVID world. And it’s a story of coming out, one that resonates with every gay man and woman.

I think Director Eamon Flack sums it up best. “We re-tell it to remember those who have been lost – but also to remember what has been won, and what still stands to be won or lost.”  

Season runs to 14 April. Tickets and more info here.

You can listen to a recent interview with Ensemble cast member and Balnaves Foundation Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Fellow, Guy Simon below:

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