Holding The Man is an intelligent and moving stage production of Tim Conigrave’s seminal memoir.
There are occasions when you find yourself on a famous person’s Wikipedia page and despite you knowing absolutely nothing about this musician, scientist, artist, whoever; when you see they died in the late 80’s or early 90’s at an alarmingly young age, you just instantaneously know.
And that was how I approached Holding The Man, only really knowing that it was about Tim Conigrave’s autobiographical love story between two Australians boys in the late twentieth century; well, AIDS was always going to play a depressingly pivotal role. Though, that’s not to say that this ominous cloud makes it any less gut wrenching when the inevitable happens.
There are only flickers of this looming threat in the first act, which is instead a gloriously cummy coming of age, where Tim first sets his eyes his high-school hunk, John Caleo, and they become sweethearts with surprising speed. You’d say it was almost carefree, were it not for the disapproval of their parents, but that doesn’t get in their way too much.
After some time, however, Tim discovers political activism and nightclubs, two forces that act as an awakening and test his first relationship. This half is heavy on laughs, with rapid scene changes and playfully inventive use of the intimate stage space, from recreating the moon landing to phone calls between irritable fathers, and a hilarious circlejerk sleepover where you can almost smell the hormones pouring from the sleeping bags.
The second act is where Tim’s clandestine sexual exploration catches up with the pair in cruel and unforgiving fashion. Much of it, as you can imagine, is bed-bound and this is where the coquettish chemistry that we saw brew between Tim and John in the first act fully blossom into something beautiful and mature.
It’s never easy to watch two lovers in the supposed prime of their lives discuss making their wills and mulling over their lives’ regrets. ‘We are 80 all of a sudden’ sighs a downtrodden John.
Sure, it could be said that the subject matter is pretty familiar to anyone who’s seen any film, play, or book on the AIDS epidemic, but it’s not mawkish or contrived in any sense.
By the time we see John’s condition rapidly deteriorate, we’ve seen the couple stick together through fifteen years of separations, periods of long-distance lusting and a reluctant opening up of the relationship. This is first and foremost a love story, one tragically cut short by infection.
The two leads are sweetly understated as Tim and John, never veering into corny territory. Plus, there’s a wonderfully versatile supporting cast, who switch from a friend’s mum to gay clubber, or silent lesbian to stony-faced doctor, with a loose ease, lightening up the often-heavy proceedings.
Holding The Man is an intimate and witty play, packing an even bigger emotional sucker-punch than you’d expect.
Who needs Andrew Garfield for a hard-hitting AIDS play?
• Holding The Man is at Brockley Jack Theatre from 17th January to 4th February, 7.45pm. Tickets are available at brockleyjack.co.uk.