Belvoir St Theatre, March 13


It turns from light to dark as if a switch is flicked. Act Two is barely underway, with Tim (Tom Conroy) researching his proposed verbatim play about HIV/AIDS, when he interviews the desperately sick Richard (Guy Simon), whose answers are interrupted by coughing fits. Asked if he has a message for the world about living with AIDS, Richard replies, “I don’t think I’ll get to see your play.”

The disease exacted a heavy toll of death, suffering and grief in the 1980s, primarily on the gay community, including Tim Conigrave and his partner John Caleo. They fell in love aged just 15, while at a Melbourne Catholic boys’ school in 1974. Conigrave’s memoir, Holding the Man, a posthumous gift for Caleo, was published in 1995, before being adapted into a revered 2006 play by Tommy Murphy.

tom Conroy and Danny Ball. Photos: Brett Boardman.

The play’s admired for many reasons. Firstly, Murphy sustained all the truth and rawness of the book; a rawness that becomes a seeping wound once HIV invades Tim and John’s lives. Secondly it made a piece of theatre (and subsequently a film) out of a story penned by a victim who was primarily an actor and playwright. Above and beyond being a fitting memorial, it became a kind of shrine for victims of the epidemic; one that gave survivors somewhere to share their grief, other than a funeral.

The third reason is entirely the work of Murphy’s imagination: the play’s fluidity. Transitions of time and place (including telephone calls) happen so seamlessly as to be part of a continuum rather than being episodic. That fluidity is again exemplified in the constant swapping between some four dozen minor characters among the supporting actors, here Guy Simon, Russell Dykstra, Rebecca Massey and Shannen Alyce Quan. It all makes for a tangible magic – which really is a synonym for theatricality.

But the play also has its flaws, and these seem amplified rather than disguised in Eamon Flack’s production. Murphy made Tim a robustly honest, sometimes obnoxious narrator, which is a key to much of the early humour. Long before John (Danny Ball) is too sick to speak for himself, however, Tim is telling us more about him than we seem to witness for ourselves: the balance tips too far from action to exposition, making the main character in Tim’s life and the play’s joint protagonist a muted presence. Perhaps Flack and Ball could have partly addressed this via a more charismatic portrayal of John, or by having him on stage more when merely in Tim’s thoughts. Furthermore, scenes between them that should be heartbreaking leave one oddly detached, and the occasional jarring line, that should long ago have been cut or reworked, lingers.

Tom Conroy and Russell Dykstra. Photos: Brett Boardman.

Ball and Conroy were often too soft in their more intimate exchanges, especially when competing with Alyx Dennison’s underscore. Nonetheless, you believed in their love, without which the play would collapse entirely, and Conroy’s Tim mostly dances adroitly on that fine line between being exasperating and sufficiently likable to keep us engaged.

Dykestra, Massey, Simon and Quan have fun with the low-hanging comedic fruit of the minor characters, most notably the goofy exercises the students are depicted as doing at NIDA (which the real Conigrave attended).

A particular highlight of both the play and production is a moment deep into Act Two when Tim, already sick, attends a reading of his play Thieving Boy, and reality boils over into the mess of thoughts seething in his mind. Oh, for it all to have been as spectacularly good as this.

Until April 14.