Matthew Needham: People dismiss Torch Song as a light comedy, but there's a lot more under the surface
There's a constant merry-go-round of news of new theatres opening in and around London, with venues popping up here, there and everywhere. The newest, the Turbine Theatre over in Battersea - an area untouched by most theatres, throws its doors open this week with what on paper should be a bang.
Like the first production at Paul Taylor-Mills last venture, musical playground The Other Palace, Drew McOnie directs the opening show. Then, it was a production of Andrew Lippa's musical The Wild Party, but this time he's chosen Harvey Fierstein's Torch Song.
Originally a trilogy spanning over four hours, the play chronicles the "loves and losses" of a Jewish drag queen in New York, played by the brilliant Matthew Needham, whose recently been seen at the Almeida in The Twilight Zone, The Treatment and Summer and Smoke, which transferred to the West End and went on to success at this year's Oliviers.
During Torch Song rehearsals, we caught up with Needham to chat about the play and how it's been streamlined (don't worry, this production isn't four hours....), and appearing in one of the biggest TV hits of the year - despite not watching himself in it!
The space was being built around us during rehearsals, which was beautifully chaotic, but it’s a nice place to be. Battersea is a nice area, but it’s hard to tell what a space feels like until we start to get audiences in. I live very near Battersea so I love it, it’s unrecognisable since they’ve ‘done it up’.
What can we expect from Torch Song?
I play Arnold Beckoff who’s a gay drag queen in early 70s/late 80s New York. It’s about the loves and losses and relationships with various people. Harvey Fierstein originally wrote it as a trilogy, it was three separate plays in consecutive years in New York, then he had the bright idea to compile them and create the Torch Song trilogy. I think the original time was over 4 hours.
Are we in for a long first night at the Turbine, then?
In 2016, he felt the world needed this story again, so he decided to make it a bit more manageable and cut a good 2 hours out of it to streamline it. It’s well under the three hour-mark, as we’re rehearsing it.
How are rehearsals going at the moment, have you worked with Drew McOnie before?
No, I never have. He’s the reason I took it, because I knew of his work and choreography, even though I’d never actually seen it, but everyone I asked about him just raved about his work and what beautiful scenes he can create.
We went for a coffee at the Young Vic to chat about it, and instantly, you could just tell that this guy’s great. The way he talks about the play was lovely, and on the surface, people dismiss it as a light, fluffy sentimental comedy, but actually I think it’s a lot more barbed. There’s a lot more going on under the surface, it’s a lot more painful, and he got that right away. It was very exciting.
Did that conversation influence how you view the character?
It meant starting from the point that this isn’t a light comedy. It’s not comfortable or easy. It is very funny, Harvey Fierstein is a wonderful writer and his use of language and wit is brilliant, but at the same time, it’s dealing with people who want love but don’t feel like they deserve love because of the pressures society puts on them. If you’re an ‘other’ and don’t give in to the ‘white middle-class heteronormative chocolate box version of America’, which not a lot of us do, then you’re often ostracised and not that your feelings don’t matter. It’s an exploration of that. Especially these days when the ‘other’ is being demonised everywhere, it says “no, we all have the same loves, the same losses, the same heartbreak and loneliness”. It’s a good reminder of that.
You’ve been very busy over the last 12 months. Three plays at the Almeida, including the West End transfer of Summer and Smoke, as well as appearing in the TV highlight of the year, Chernobyl…
Oh yeah, I’ve still not seen that!
You’ve not seen it?! You’re in it!
I don’t have the time, but everyone who’s seen it tells me it’s great. I had a lovely time on it, so I look forward to seeing it.
Did you expect that show to blow up in the way that it did?
No, I don’t think anyone did to that extent. It’s obvious when you turn up on set whether it’s got the quality or not. There were good people on it, good people in it, the scripts were wonderful. I thought we were in with a fighting chance, but not to this extent. But it’s wonderful that people are interested in that horrific story, and willing to learn more about it.
Well, I highly recommend you watch it!
I will, I’ll binge-watch it when I get an evening free.
You’ve kind of been a member of the Almeida rep company over the last year, and you got to take Summer and Smoke to the West End. What was it like taking that intense production to the West End?
It’s been a while since we did it, but it was just the most wonderful company and crew. It was like a beautiful family. All I can remember is the really good stuff, though I do remember how emotionally exhausting it was to do every night. I don’t miss that, but I do miss everything else about it. Especially to be able to work with the likes of Patsy Ferran and Rebecca Frecknall.
Given your success, I was surprised to read that you never really had the ambition to be an actor growing up. When did you decide acting was for you?
It wasn’t that I didn’t have any ambition for it, it was that I didn’t think that I could. I didn’t really know it was a thing I could do, I thought it was only certain people. It wasn’t until I was at college when a teacher said: “I think you should try for drama school, I think you could do it”. It just never occurred to me that I could do it, but it’s interesting really, it just takes one person to say “no, you can.”
Torch Song tickets are available now.