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Review: Holding the Man at Belvoir St Theatre

Review by Rosie Niven

Returning to the Belvoir stage after seventeen years, and on the 30th anniversary of original author Timothy Conigrave’s death, Tommy Murphy’s Holding the Man is set to reignite the flame of Tim and John’s love story. 

Meeting in the 1970s at a Jesuit all-boys school, Tim and John seem to connect almost immediately, challenged by feelings of doubt about their identity and fear over what this love means for their future. Despite many opposing forces, these two young lovers persist through University and beyond as they carve a life for themselves that is authentic and free. When both of them contract HIV, their worlds are turned upside down as they grapple with this new diagnosis and the fear and confusion that permeated the queer community in the 1980s and 90s. 

Tim and John’s love story is a short-lived one - due to the AIDS crisis, they were afforded only 15 years together before John’s passing in 1992, with Tim following just two years later. This tragic and untimely loss is not unique in our community, and with the retelling of these stories comes a deep pain and feelings of injustice for what their love story and the love stories of many would have looked like had they been able to live on. 

What is refreshing about Director Eamon Flack’s approach to such a tragedy is the levity the cast was able to express in their portrayal of Tim and John’s story, transcending the grief and highlighting the freeing, electric feeling of finding yourself and finding someone you can love deeply and unapologetically. Explorations of Tim’s journey of sexual expression and his exploits as a tortured NIDA student had the audience delighted and engaged, and a strong sense of playfulness from the ensemble allowed us to trust them implicitly to lead us through what many of us knew would be a difficult narrative to confront. 

Tackling Tim and John’s love story head on are Tom Conroy and Danny Ball, two performers to whom this narrative feels deeply connected. Conroy takes on the role of Tim in his stride, providing the audience with a rich representation of a man who finds everything he ever wanted just to have it stripped from him without warning. His prowess as a storyteller shines brightly throughout the show, guiding us confidently through an expansive narrative with ease. As Conroy’s gentle counterpart, Ball’s depiction of John perfectly captures the hesitation of coming to terms with who you are, particularly when it means losing another part of yourself. While the softness and warmth that radiated from Ball was often welcomed, at times he would retreat so far within himself that it was challenging to hear. 

Supported by a delightful ensemble of Russell Dykstra, Rebecca Massey, Shannen Alyce Quan, and Guy Simon, the first half of this production is filled with humour and joy, reflective of the captivating feeling of falling in love, and the shared playfulness that comes with growing alongside another person. It is these moments where Holding the Man truly shines - in its unapologetic and charming expressions of sex, love and freedom.

However, the second half of this production is where the audience starts to disengage. As the AIDS epidemic spreads and catastrophically impacts Tim and John’s lives, the expertise with which the comedic elements of this story were approached seems amiss in moments of tragedy. Scenes such as John’s passing and Tim’s struggle to hold on to reality felt they were missing their heart, leaving the audience yearning to feel more. While the strong ensemble shines in the many moments of levity, they feel underutilised in the depictions of grief and loss. Perhaps this choice is to highlight the isolation that Tim and John were feeling after their diagnoses, but unfortunately it lends itself to making the second half of the production feel disconnected from the first. 

Stephen Curtis’ set design pays homage to the vibrant decor of 70s and 80s Australia with bold patterns and cosy, mismatched couches that transform the Belvoir stage into an almost theatre-in-the-round, inviting us intimately into the story of Tim and John. The one detraction from this space is the rig placed to the side of the stage to accommodate large harnesses that raise the lovers into the sky in out-of-body moments pivotal to their story. Whilst this creative approach fits well within the daydreams of Tim’s youth, the use of this in a space that does not lend itself to aerial work of this nature distracted during the tragic moment that John’s life came to an end. 

Belvoir’s production of Holding the Man is one that is full of spirit, and celebrates the beautiful moments of human connection that come with each fleeting life. Where it falters is in its handling of the darker aspects of life, and the deep feelings of grief that Conigrave explores in his story, both in grieving the loss of his lover and the loss of himself. Something that if given the time and attention that it needed, could have made this production incredibly special. 

Image Credit: Brett Boardman


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