Sunday, 29 July 2012

The White Nights - from Dostoevsky to Visconti + Bresson

Writing about Notes from Underground just now made me realise I never finished and published this post from way back in January. Here it is only half a year late.

Classes have started again, whoo! It may be incredibly geeky but my life seems a bit lacking in purpose without learning to do. And as I'm paying so much for this education, I might as well share it with you.

The first course to begin is called Crossing Borders: Adaptation from Literature to Film, which brings together a whole load of things I love, and the first adaptation we're looking at is The White Nights (full text available here).

The White Nights is a short story by Dostoevsky (1848) telling the story of a dreamer and the four nights he spends with an impossible love. This story has often been written off as just a minor Dostoevsky novella, nothing more than a romance. But my teacher, Fabio Vighi, argues that it's much more than that. This is the turning point for Dostoevsky, the moment when he moved from radically political texts to complex psychological ones, anticipating Freud's theory of the unconscious and the split-subject and thus creating the modern anti-hero far before the modern period itself. How do we get all that from a fifty page novella? In fact, it's just from a few lines here and there, lines you may well pay no attention to if you're not looking for them, but those few lines have an incredible depth of meaning. It's the story of a nameless young dreamer who is a bit of an outsider, but seemingly happy in his misery. One night he meets a crying woman, Nastenka, and falls for her over the three consecutive nights until her wayward lover returns. He is sad, of course, but happy to be sad as it gives him a life experience that makes him special.

In comparison we looked at Visconti's Le Notti Bianche (1957) and Bresson's Quatre nuits d'un reveur (1971).

I found Visconti's adaptation much more interesting than Bresson's. Set against a background of post-war poverty, Visconti's film subtly reveals his communist convictions, reminding viewers that while the protagonists are caught up in their own drama, people are starving and homeless. The psychological side to Dostoevsky's novella disappears as the story becomes a much more common melodrama. Mario (Marcello Mastroianni) doesn't revel in his own misery like Dostoevsky's (anti)hero; he puts everything on the line to win Natalia (Maria Schell), and is genuinely devastated when it doesn't work out. Interestingly, the script has barely changed from the novella, except that large sections of the narrators monologues are removed and a few scenes are added in (including a spectacular dance scene in a night club). In a way then, Visconti is less progressive than Dostoevsky almost a century earlier.

Another notable aspect of Le notti bianche is its treatment of women. There are three very clear stereotypes in the film: Natalia is the innocent virgin (blonde and doe-eyed), then there is a prostitute scene wandered the city, dark and dangerous, and finally there is Mario's housekeeper in the role of the nagging mother. Fabio argues this is a  criticism of heterosexual relationships from Visconti who had to keep his homosexuality quiet - the woman may seem beautiful and appealing at first, but she won't age well and will just nag you death in the end (at this point Fabio turns to me, the only girl in the room, and apologises). This is certainly not an idea present in Dostoevsky's novella, in which Nastenka remains an untouchable ideal.

Robert Bresson's film, by contrast, remains much more faithful to the original, and yet so boring. I am a big fan of French film (as this blog will attest) but 'French' in its derogatory sense (i.e. the worst stereotypes of French cinema) is the most applicable adjective for this film. Our lonely boy this time is Jacques (Guillaume de Foret), an artist, who wanders Paris leering at women (just following them and staring at them for an uncomfortably long time) and recording existentialist musings and pigeon noise in his tape-recorder to play back to himself later. The nature of artistic creation is at the heart of Bresson's adaptation (one of the few sections of dialogue not taken directly from Dostoevsky is a diatribe from a classmate of Jacques about what makes good art), and it is clear that Jacques' interest in Marthe (Isabelle Weingarten) is primarily as a source of inspiration for his paintings. When she leaves him alone again, he goes happily to his canvases to turn the experience into art. Compared to Mario's simple, ardent passion for Natalia in Le notti bianche, this feels like a real let down even though it is far closer to Dostoevsky's original. Proof that fidelity isn't necessary the best quality on which to judge a literary adaptation! 

Notes from Underground - Eric Bogosian

I've been reading a lot lately, so time for another book post. Browsing the library's contemporary American section recently, I spotted Notes from Underground by Eric Bogosian (1993). I'd never heard of Bogosian before (although he wrote Talk Radio which I have on newspaper-giveaway DVD) but I was instantly hit by title, sure that it was a very famous, highly recommended book.

Turns out it is, only Dostoevsky wrote it. I only just realised this when I googled for a picture of the cover, and it came flooding back to me that we'd discussed Notes from Underground as the first existential text as part of a class on Dostoevsky's White Nights. Oops. I will have to read the 1864 story now.

Written 119 years later, Bogosian's Notes takes more from the great Russian than the title; both are written in the form of a diary by an unhappy outsider. Bogosian's underground, however, is a small flat in contemporary New York, and his outsider is addicted to cheese crackers, spying on his neighbours and watching Dan Rather on CBS News. It's very short - just 70 pages, often with only a few lines on each - and written in a conversational style that makes it easy to power through, but it is far from a comfortable read. The protagonist becomes increasingly disconnected from society and its rules. He's not at all your usual murdery torturey psychopath, but more disturbing in a way as although he does not harm anyone (except himself in a particularly gruelling scene) there seems to be no logic to his actions and you never know what he might do next. It's certainly not the best book I've read recently, but an interesting study of a character isolated and adrift in the modern world.

Any Human Heart

As a treat for finishing my dissertation (well, at least until my supervisor reads and critiques it), I re-watched Channel 4's wonderful mini-series, Any Human Heart, which first aired in late 2010. Based on William Boyd's 2002 novel of the same name, it is both a very individual tale of one man and a complete history of the twentieth century. I've never found anything else that so perfectly combines so many of my interests: identity construction and reconstruction, self and history, writing and memory, artistic and literary history... all that plus romance, action, humour and an incredible cast.

We are an anthology, a composite of many selves - William Boyd

Over four episodes (about an hour and a quarter each), we are introduced to the many sides of Logan Mountstuart, from young and earnest aspiring writer through to serene octogenarian. It is not just age that changes Logan but the multitude of ordinary and extraordinary experiences that make up his long life. Living from 1906 to 1991, Logan not only witnesses, but actively participates in, the events which so drastically changed our world over the course of the twentieth century. From the Spanish Civil War and World War II to left-wing terrorism and Thatcherism, Logan writes about it all alongside banal details of everyday life. It's not just politics that graces Logan's journal either, but, as you'd expect from a 'man of letters', the vagaries of art and literary fashion. From Hemingway to Prince/King/Duke Edward, Logan fortuitously interacts with many of the most famous names of the twentieth century.

Jim Broadbent, Matthew Macfayden and Sam Clafin
as the three ages of Logan Mountstuart
At the same time, Any Human Heart is deeply personal. Each stage of Logan's journey through the twentieth century is marked by one of his many women, yet his love for one particular woman lasts his whole life and outweighs everything else. This is my favourite part of the story, beautiful and heartbreaking. Logan's philosophy is that "It's all luck in the end: good luck and bad luck". He is a man who experiences plenty of both and carries on regardless.

I know the novel has even more to offer that couldn't fit into five hours of TV, and so look forward to reading it soon. I particularly like how Boyd tries to pass it off as a real diary, with an editors preface, footnotes, list of works by Logan Mountstuart, and all the other trappings you would expect of an edited volume. Boyd had previously written a biography of a fictional artist, Nat Tate: An American Artist 1928-1960 (1998) which had been so realistic it had fooled many art critics. His blurring of the lines between fiction and reality is just another reason why I'm so fascinated by his work.

Any Human Heart is available to watch on 4oD. You can buy the book on Amazon here

Thursday, 26 July 2012

The Bonfire of the Vanities

My latest article for Bibliomula is out now, but if you don't speak Spanish, here's what I wrote about Tom Wolfe's The Bonfire of the Vanities in English.

New York has always seemed like a spiritual home for me. I grew up with images of the city, from television, films, books and the stories told to me by my father who had lived there for a few years. Central Park, the Empire State Building and the Metropolitan Museum of Art have long been familiar to me, although I only visited New York for the first time last year.

New York is billed as the place where "dreams come true", where anyone can get rich or find the love of their life atop the Empire State - perhaps even both on the same day. But unlike the fairy tale, what has always fascinated me most is the other side of the megalopolis, its hidden, sordid side. From American Psycho by Brett Easton Ellis (1991) to Cosmopolis by Don DeLillo (2003), novels that juxtapose the high life of wealth and beauty with violence, corruption and depravity never fail to draw me in. Morally bankrupt characters are always the most engaging. And undoubtedly the masterpiece of the genre is The Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe (1987), an epic for the modern age that paints a bleak picture of all of New York, from the Bronx to Park Avenue.
TomWolfBorn in 1931, Wolfe became famous for his trademark white suit and the invention of 'New Journalism'. Departing from the traditional idea of journalism as impartial and formal writing, Wolfe pioneered a creative and experimental journalism. His greatest talent is the true-to-life reproduction of speech, incorporating slang, phonetic spelling and erratic punctuation, which gives his stories a sense of urgency and a real spark. In the sixties, his non-fiction books - The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby (1965) and The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968) - captured the spirit of the age: experimentation, psychedelia, freedom.
When money and power took the place of freedom and self-expression as the dominant values ​​of the eighties, Wolfe used all of his experimental literary techniques to create The Bonfire of the Vanities, a captivating portrait of the New York melting-pot, inspired by William Makepeace Thackeray's Vanity Fair (1848), presenting a cross-section of contemporary society. The title also refers to a medieval Florentine ritual in which objects accused of inducing sin were burnt; an apt title for a novel full of all manner of sins.

The novel is set in a key period in the recent history of the United States, marked by racial tensions and the height of Wall Street power. It starts in the Bronx, where racial tensions reach boiling point and violence erupts. This chaos is then juxtaposed with the trading floor of Pierce & Pierce, where Sherman McCoy is the star stockbroker. Everyone shouts and swears here too, but on the trading floor they do it for a six-figure salary. Between these extremes, orbit a growing list of characters. There are the manipulating English, like journalist Peter Fallow, who charm American wannabes into paying for their binges. There are the assistant district attorneys, like Larry Kramer, who struggle to make do with meagre salaries while getting off on the power to imprison criminals. There are the schemers like Rev. Reginald Bacon, who accuse everyone of being racist and incite violence in order to further their own careers. When Sherman has an accident with fatal consequences, it reveals how all these worlds are interrelated and are a lot more than it first seems. Rich or poor, everyone is after the same things: sex, status, power. Everyone exploits everyone else for their own benefit.

One of Wolfe's key achievements was counteracting the myth of Wall Street as the Promised Land. He describes in detail lavish dinners and luxurious apartments which 'haemorrhage money', to show how just vacuous they are. Although he refers to himself as 'Master of the Universe', Sherman is not happy. He is obsessed with money and seeks solace in a dingy apartment with a young lover. Behind the veneer of decency, the rich are as immoral as the criminals in the Bronx.

While it may seem heavy (physically and in terms of content), The Bonfire of the Vanities is actually full of humor and action. In Wolfe's typical style, there is no omniscient narrator, which keeps the reader guessing. The events are told again and again from different points of view, manipulated for political gain, exaggerated to sell newspapers, spread through backstreet whispers. At each point, the reader is never sure of the truth and Wolfe revels in the ambiguity.

It is now twenty five years since Wolfe wrote The Bonfire of the Vanities. Has New York changed? The city has gone through Guiliani's 'clean-up', shared with the rest of the country the arrival of the first black president in the history of the United States of America and witnessed Wall Street reforms, so you would hope that crime, racial tensions and wealth inequality, would decrease. However, a quick glance at the news suffices to prove that all these challenges persist. Moreover, if there's one thing I've learned from Gossip Girl (the TV series, and novels by Cecily von Ziegesar on which it is based), it's that Sherman's world is still very much alive. The wealthy New Yorkers continue to live extravagant and luxurious lives, full of vice without consequence.

The Bonfire of the Vanities is a book that you can't put down. An enduring study of human character and a historic document in equal measure. It captured with precision a fundamental era, whose presence is still keenly felt in New York today.

Sunday, 22 July 2012

Literary tunes

I've just finished reading Rudyard Kipling's The Man Who Would Be King, which I downloaded (free for Kindle - yay for expired copyright) primarily because I love The Libertine's song of the same title. In that vein, I thought I would share a few of my favourite songs based on literature. I know there are a lot more out there (including some very obvious ones like Kate Bush's Wuthering Heights), so please comment with your favourites.

The Libertines - The Man Who Would Be King
I don't think the song actually has much to do with the story beyond the title and a mention of newspapers, but it's been stuck in my head for days while I've been reading Kipling's 1888 novella. In the same way I could mention their What Katie Did single, apparently about an ex-girlfriend of Doherty's but sharing its name with Susan Coolidge's 1872 children's book.

The Velvet Underground - Venus in Furs (Leopold von Sacher-Masoch)
As it is named after the 1870 book that introduced Masochism to the world, it was once my psychology homework to listen to this 1966 track, which remains one of the coolest songs ever.

Elefant - Lolita (Vladamir Nabakov)
Lots of songs are named after Nabakov's iconic 1955 tale of a highly inappropriate attraction, but I love Elefant's for the rock-factor. It's a shame the band totally disappeared.

Broken Records - If Eilert Loevborg Wrote A Song It Would Sound Like This (Ibsen, Hedda Gabber)
I'm listening to Broken Records as I write this, so this had to be on the list. Ibsen's plays pack quite a punch (especially for the 19th century) and so does this song.

Jefferson Airplane - White Rabbit (Lewis Caroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland
Another obvious one. Caroll's surreal stories fit perfectly with the 60s psychedelic vibe.

Ridan - Ulysse
There must be hundreds of songs inspired by Homer's Odyssey/Joyce's Ulysses, but as this list has been dominated by cool American rock, so I thought I'd mix it up with a little French urban protest music. I particularly like the siren (mermaids/police cars) pun.

Honourable mention: Jamie T - Sheila 
While not based on a book, I love the sampling from George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion in the middle of the song: "Good Heavens what a noise! Cold blooded murder of the English tongue. BRAAAA!"

Saturday, 21 July 2012

Minority Literatures and English Translation

While doing some dissertation research, I came across a website which lists every Galician book ever translated into English. All 45 of them. Out of the thousands of books published in Galician every year, only 45 have reached our bookshelves, and 14 of these were in the last two years. Many of them only had runs of a few hundred prints too.


I found the list from an article in the Galician version of Spanish daily El País, featuring my lecturer Dr Craig Patterson (listen to my interview with him about translating Eduardo Blanco Amor's A Esmorga here). He explains that English is the medium by which most minority literatures reach publishers in other countries (they probably don't understand Galician but they certainly do understand English), so if we don't publish them, it is unlikely that anyone else will. The problem is that it's a vicious cycle: translations will only get published if they're guaranteed to sell, but there's no way of knowing whether they would sell until they've been published. If you consult the list, you'll notice that a lot of the texts are by a select few authors, because if one of their books sells, it's likely people will want to read another. Unproven authors don't stand a chance. 

This is particularly interesting for me, because it's at the heart of my interest in Latin American literature. In the last week, I've been busy organising a panel for the annual Hispanists (people who study anything to do with Spain or Latin America) conference on 'Canonicity and Latin America's Marginalised Literatures'. This stems from a deep frustration that the only literature from Latin America that tends to be studied over here is from a few big countries: Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Cuba, Mexico and Peru. In commercial terms, success is even more limited to big names like Jorge Luis Borges, Gabriel García Márquez, Carlos Fuentes, Mario Vargas Llosa, Isabel Allende... It's not surprising people know so little about other Latin American literature when so few books make it into English, especially from countries which haven't proven their worth in terms of best-selling authors. This is turn leads to devaluing of literature in it's own country, at least in Venezuela, as it is thought that if no-one abroad wants to read it, it is clearly not very good (they're wrong, it is).

I'd like to make a list like Jonathan Dunne's Galicia one for Venezuela when I have some free time. I doubt it would be very long. Of the books I've read recently, only one has an English translation: Alberto Barrera Tyzska's The Sickness (La Enfermedad) which has had international success and also been translated into French and Italian. It's a thoroughly engrossing story of a doctor who has always been cold and removed with patients, seeing them more as bodies than spirits, until his father is diagnosed with cancer. I highly recommend it and it's only just over £5 for Kindle.

Also, if you're a poetry fan I have to recommend Guillermo Parra's translation of selected works of Venezuelan poet José Antonio Ramos Sucre which has just been published after many years of hard work .

These are very rare examples though. If the rest of the world is ever going to be able to enjoy the wonderful, multi-faceted literatures of Latin America - and other world literatures in general - publishers need to start taking a punt on unproven translations.

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Charles Bukowski - Ham on Rye

Having finished all the reading for my dissertation, I finally have a chance to get on with all the reading I've been meaning to do for months, starting with Charles Bukowski's Ham on Rye (1982) which, as I said back in March, I have been meaning to read for a very long time.

Ham on Rye is the semi-autobiographical tale of Bukowski's alter-ego Hank Chinaski, charting his first memories until his early twenties. While not as shocking as some of Bukowski's earlier work (although increasingly graphic as Hank grows up), Ham on Rye instantly grips you with short, blunt sentences and a refusal to censure real life. It is a novel full of pain and weariness, yet studded with Bukowski's trademark dry wit. Growing up in the height of the Depression, Chinaski is repeatedly urged by his parents to make a better life for himself, but he cannot get passed the futility of it all. He is plagued by terrible acne and lacking the money, sporting ability or social skills to make friends with anyone but other outsiders, who he would prefer to avoid. As he grows up, Hank finds solace in only two things: alcohol and literature.

I wanted to share a couple of Chinaski's thoughts which stood out for me. The first perfectly encapsulates the power of reading:
"Words weren't dull, words were anything that can make your mind hum. If you read them and let yourself feel the magic, you could live without pain, with hope, no matter what happened to you" (165).

The second is a fascinating insight into Bukowski's own conception of literature. With his usual cynicism, he notes that literature has no real power to change anything, but has its own value. 
D.H. Lawrence, G.B. Shaw, Huxley... "It was good to read them all though. It made you realize that thoughts and words could be fascinating, if finally useless" (184).

If Hank Chinaski were to read Bukowski, I'm sure he would add him to this list. In the end, Ham on Rye is just the account of a melancholy, uninspired existence, but Bukowski's stark, forceful style makes it a fascinating read.

Sunday, 15 July 2012


While I haven't been able to get out and about much - certainly no theatre trips - I have had time for lots of reading, films and TV, so I thought I should share some of what I've been enjoying on here, starting with my latest TV binge: Community.

My dad put me on to Community after it recently won a TV Choice Award for Best Sitcom. It's horribly addictive and only 20 minutes per episode, so I've now already watched all three series (a fourth will start in October). Community is very, very silly, but if you get passed that it is a lot of fun and also very clever, especially if you're a film and TV buff. 

When it is discovered that his degree is fake, smooth-talking lawyer Jeff Winger (Joel McHale) finds himself at Greendale Community College, possibly the world's worst school. In an attempt to seduce wannabe political activist Britta Perry (Gillian Jacobs), he starts a Spanish study group, bringing together a diverse mix of characters that otherwise have nothing in common - straight-A student turned Adderral addict, Annie Eddison (Man Men's wonderful Alison Brie); ex-high school football star, Troy Barnes (Donald Glover); strongly Christian mum, Shirley Bennett (Yvette Nicole Brown); film & TV nerd, Abed Nadir (Danny Pudi) and retired businessman growing old disgracefully Pierce Hawthorne (Chevy Chase, basically playing himself). Surprisingly the group come together as a support system and eventually a very unconventional family, inspired by creator Dan Harmon's real-life experience at community college.

The characters start of as complete stereotypes, but they acknowledge that and the humour is completely self-aware. Through the three series, however, the characters evolve in surprising and rewarding ways, and you can't help but get sucked in to the web of relations between them. The most distinctive feature of Community though is how very meta it is - every episode is either pastiching a certain programme or genre, or stuffed full of pop culture references. This may annoy some viewers, but I really appreciated how the characters and setting adapted to everything from CSI to Lars Von Trier's Dogville. Equally, I loved the experimentation with form of certain episodes, from stop-motion animation to 80s video game.

So if you're stuck for something to fill a 20 minute gap in your viewing schedule, give Community a go. Just as the characters learn to embrace life at Greendale, if you give Community a chance you'll be very happy there.

Thursday, 12 July 2012

Sorry for the lack of blog posts lately. My hands really hurt when I type at the moment, and with 20000 words of dissertation to write, that's about as much typing as I can take. Hopefully I'll be back to normal soon.

Friday, 6 July 2012

BT ArtBoxes

I've seen pigs in Bath and gorillas in Bristol; now BT are filling London with vibrantly decorated telephone boxes, in honour of 25 years of Childline. On Wednesday I spotted a few, but from the website - - it looks like there are many much more exciting ones out there. Keep your eyes peeled if you're in London over the summer.

How Many People Can You Fit Into A Phone Box? by Dan Woodger
BT explain that as the red phone box was designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott to mark King George V's Silver Jubilee, they launched these artistic replica boxes to coincide with the Queen's Diamond Jubilee. The boxes will later be auctioned to raise money for Childline.

T is for Telephone by David Mach

Santander Universities UK Reception with McLaren Drivers

This year I've developed a real Formula One addiction. Every other Sunday afternoon, reading, writing or whatever else needs to be done goes out the window as I inevitably get hooked on watching the cars whizz around the tracks. I love the rivalries, the drama, the tactics, and the undeniable talent of the drivers. So when I was told that, thanks to Santander, I would get to meet Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton, I was over the moon. I'd been looking forward to it for months, and on Wednesday the day finally came. I think I was probably one of the biggest fans there; I was so excited, I even took pictures of their chairs, just in front of me.



Unfortunately 'meet' was an exaggeration. We couldn't talk to the drivers, take individual photos with them or get autographs as I'd daydreamed. Instead, Jenson and Lewis were there to present certificates to recipients of Formula Santander scholarships, along with Executive Chairman of Santander, and other important people from the bank. The drivers also spoke briefly about the importance of the scholarships. Jenson made us all laugh by saying "Well we know Santander only support the very best"!

The presentation with the drivers was part of a larger event, celebrating Santander's support of education, and particularly student mobility. As a student of Latin America, it was uplifting to hear how the universities over there are going from strength to strength, and how they receive support from British universities and companies like Santander. It was also a rare occasion to see over fifty Vice Chancellors gathered with dignitaries like Dave Willetts, Minister of State for Universities and Science, and Ana Botin, CEO of Santander Universities UK.

Now let's hope for a McLaren win at Silverstone on Sunday!

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Torch Song Trilogy @ Menier Chocolate Factory

The first show I ever saw at the charming Menier Chocolate Factory was La Cage Aux Folles staring Douglas Hodge in 2008. Now Hodge is back with another Harvey Fierstein penned play, only this time Hodge is directing. While La Cage aux Folles is all singing and dancing, Torch Song Trilogy is a much more intimate, semi-autobiographical play, about one man's struggle for love, happiness and acceptance.

As the name suggests, Torch Song Trilogy is made up of three parts, each charting key moments in the life of drag queen Arnold Beckoff (David Bedella). The first, The International Stud, starts with a touching monologue from Arnold about his past loves and future hopes. As he applies his make-up, he lets his guard down in a mixture of self-self-deprecating humour and genuine emotion. We then meet achingly earnest Ed (Joe McFadden) who delivers his chat up line straight to the audience. Arnold thinks him and Ed have a real connection, but the staging from Soutra Gilmour - full of walls and windows - foreshadows the ensuing boundaries between them, as Ed decides to deny his urges and stick to an easier, straight life. Can Arnold learn to live without him? Part two, Fugue in a Nursery, sees Arnold and his new young lover Alan (Tomk Rhys Harries) invited for a weekend in the country chez Ed and his wife Laurel (Laura Pyper). Laurel thinks this is highly sophisticated but of course emotions run high and it can't end well. Hodge reinvented this section by setting it all on a bed, with the four characters, all dressed in white pyjamas, tumbling into different conjugations - a really clever staging idea. The final part, Widows & Children First, is both the funniest and the most moving. Two new characters are introduced - Arnold's old-fashioned Jewish mother who refuses to accept his homosexuality (Sara Kestelman) and 15-year old David (Perry Millward) who Arnold hopes to adopt. While the three generations of Berkhoff's spark off each other, the change in Arnold - who has been through love and loss and grown into a devoted parent gives this final section a real pathos. And then of course there's Ed - after six years of loving each other, can they finally find a future together?

A frequent criticism of this revival of Torch Song Trilogy is that the gay rights issues raised in the play - specifically the idea that one has to remain in the closet to be accepted into society and the assumption that homosexual couples cannot love each other in the same way as heterosexual couples - would have been ground-breaking at its début in 1981 but are now out-of-date. Yes, thankfully, there is more equality these days, but the current polemic surrounding gay marriage and adoption proves the enduring relevance of this play. Moreover, beyond the politics, the personal journey at the heart of the story remains as engaging as ever.

At the heart of this revival of Torch Song Trilogy is David Bedella's stellar central performance. Bedella rose to fame as the Devil in Jerry Springer - The Opera, for which he won the 2004 Olivier Award for Best Actor in a Musical. A little of this devilish charisma remains in Arnold's bitchy drag queen personality, but Bedella excels at bringing out the real Arnold, vulnerable and full of love, wanting nothing more than affection and acceptance, yet strong enough to stand by his convictions. Bedella makes Arnold an incredibly sympathetic character, flawed but loveable. Perry Millwald is another highlight - his David is bursting with energy and personality, a real joy. As Ed, Joe McFadden is just so sweet you can't help but route for him even when he's doing something really stupid. With a small frame and huge eyes, Laura Pyper is the embodiment of a fragile young woman, well-meaning but always ending up in a bad situation.

Tom Rhys Harries makes his London stage début as Alan. Alan loves Arnold deeply (although not enough to avoid adultery) but becomes incredibly petulant when his affection seems unequally returned. This portrayal of Alan gets many laughs, but makes it hard to believe that he and Arnold would later become devoted partners who plan to adopt together. When I first received the promotional material for Torch Song Trilogy, I was surprised to see Harries - a familiar face from the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama. I'd always been a little underwhelmed by him in Cardiff, but assumed he must be doing something right to have landed this role before even graduating. I was intrigued, but I have to say Harries felt like the weak link in the cast. He certainly looks the part - blonde hair, blue eyes, chiselled model look - and has a sweet if not very exciting singing voice, but his accent kept switching from American to British RP and he just didn't seem quite as comfortable in the role as the others. This might be because I'm used to seeing him in the real world, at Central Station or in the RWCMD café with his friends (I'm not a stalker, Cardiff's just a small city!), but I would say it's more that his relative inexperience was highlighted by the calibre of the rest of the cast.

Through almost three hours, Torch Song Trilogy kept me hooked, partly because of the quality of the central performances, but mainly because the multifaceted characters - each endearing but flawed in their own way - are engaging. The play is laced with Fierstein's trademark sharp humour, which made me laugh out loud throughout, but left me feeling deeply moved. Highly recommended.

Torch Song Trilogy runs at the Menier Chocolate Factory, London, until 12 August 2012. Tickets are available here.