Jerome Meyer and Alec Snow in Holding The Man | La Boite Theatre (Pic: Al Caeiro)

It’s been almost 30 years since the gay community took the first tentative steps towards coming out in what was then a very hostile world. The 1980s saw the beginning of the gay pride movement, and for the first time in the west gays felt able to express themselves fully in what was for some a very flamboyant manner.

Tommy Murphy’s Holding the Man (from Timothy Conigrave’s book) is set in this period, and it’s also the personal story of two real people — Tim and John — and the tragic end to their relationship. So it’s a part of history now, and in one sense a dramatised documentary of two particular people in an important historical time. This makes for a loaded situation for a reviewer, especially for one who was not part of the scene.

The problem is that if you don’t like the treatment of the story, as I didn’t, you can be accused of homophobia. But it’s possible to be sympathetic to the gay community, and count many of them as friends, without admiring or finding funny some of the over-the-top antics, or the intimate details of anal penetration. And I wonder if the audience who shrieked hilariously at Tim’s account of semen running out of his anus after his first penetration would have been so amused had it been a heterosexual women. Just asking.

My problem with the production was that there wasn’t much emotional involvement between audience and actors on the one hand, and characters in the play on the other. It was like the Cartoon Comics version of what should have been a sensitive story, and everyone except the two men at the heart of the plot — Alec Snow as Tim and Jerome Meyer as his partner John — played their multiple roles as high camp. Yes, Eugene Gilfedder, Helen Howard and the rest gave us great caricatures, but they were more like a pantomime version. I found much of it really distasteful, especially as the two leads were very wooden.

I was totally unconvinced by the nightclub scenes, especially the over-the-top queers in drag, and could have done without the mass masturbation scene, too. When a play doesn’t have very much to say, all the outrageous gimmicks in the world can’t make it come alive. Yes, I know that the basic story is deadly serious — I’ve seen the play before — but this time I left at interval, because I couldn’t take any more of the “look-at-me-dahling!” antics and the lack of true ensemble acting.

Gross caricatures, and really bad wigs and costumes, do not a comedy make. As a Melbourne girl, I know students at Xavier College would not have been allowed to wear red gym boots in the ’80s.

I think this production does the original story a grave disservice. It was superficial and trivial, and I longed for some depth of feeling. I think of Dan and Nathan in Angry Boys, and Jonah in Summer Heights High, and could weep for the compassion and truth that was portrayed in those often foul-mouthed and sexually over-active characters. They were very funny, but they had real emotional depth.

Chris Lilley, where are you now that we really need you?

The details: Holding The Man plays the La Boite Theatre until March 16. Tickets via QTIX.

Get Crikey for $1 a week.

Lockdowns are over and BBQs are back! At last, we get to talk to people in real life. But conversation topics outside COVID are so thin on the ground.

Join Crikey and we’ll give you something to talk about. Get your first 12 weeks for $12 to get stories, analysis and BBQ stoppers you won’t see anywhere else.

Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
12 weeks for just $12.