Review: A Single Man at Park Theatre

Based on the novel by Christopher Isherwood and adapted by Simon Reade, A Single Man follows a day in the life of George (Theo Fraser Steele), a middle-aged British professor living in Los Angeles, as he wakes, goes to work, visits a friend, has dinner with another, encounters one of his students in a bar, and finally falls into bed back at home. It’s a regular day in many ways, and yet each of these everyday activities is coloured by George’s grief following the recent sudden death of his partner Jim – even more so because, as a gay man in the 1960s, he feels unable to mourn publicly for the man he loved – and his need to try and rediscover meaning in a life that now feels empty.

Photo credit: Mitzi de Margary

A Single Man is very deliberately not an action-packed story, but the pace of Philip Wilson’s production in Act 1 is nonetheless quite brisk, taking us through the routine business of the day before settling into a slower rhythm after the interval. This makes sense, as the evening is when George has his two most meaningful encounters of the day: first, a dinner with his friend Charley (Olivia Darnley), a fellow Brit mourning a different kind of loss, and second, a seemingly chance encounter with Kenny (Miles Molan), a student with whom George feels an unexpected connection. However it also makes the earlier events feel rather throwaway – particularly his visit to see Doris (Phoebe Pryce), a young female friend who’s dying in hospital; we never see her again after her one brief appearance, and her relationship with George is never fully explained.

All five members of the cast give strong performances, with Theo Fraser Steele expertly conveying both George’s isolation and his capacity for warmth – though, intentionally or otherwise, his close similarities to Colin Firth (who played the role in Tom Ford’s 2009 movie adaptation) are so prominent that they can at times become distracting and invite unnecessary comparisons. Olivia Darnley is excellent as Charley, masking her own fragility behind a lighthearted facade, Miles Molan makes an impressive professional debut as both Kenny and Jim, and Phoebe Pryce and Freddie Gaminara provide versatile support as various other characters George comes into contact with throughout his day.

Photo credit: Mitzi de Margary

Caitlin Abbott’s powerfully versatile set provides just enough to give us an idea of our surroundings, but is ultimately dominated by a large concrete block which ensures no matter where George goes, death is never far from his, or the audience’s, thoughts. There’s little of California in the set design, and yet through George’s eloquent descriptions, the city of LA almost becomes another character – one to which he clings because to leave it would be to leave behind the life he shared with Jim.

Those who are familiar with Isherwood’s novel (or Ford’s movie) will be better placed to discuss the quality of this particular adaptation – but for those who are new to George’s story, this is a high quality production that sensitively explores the insidiousness and loneliness of grief. Aspects of the plot may sit uncomfortably for a 21st century audience, but the play’s central themes remain as relevant as ever.

A Single Man is at Park Theatre until 26th November.

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