Kicking off proceedings with a bang – quite literally – from the get-go, the European premiere of A Letter To Harvey Milk announced its arrival loud and proud. A gun shot and dramatic opening scene had us all perched on the edge of our seats. Settling in for what appeared to be a dynamic, energetic and dramatic portrayal of the battle for gay rights in San Francisco, I soon found myself wondering where the momentum of the first few minutes disappeared to and when it would return.

Credit: Gareth McLeod

Whilst act one’s numbers are heartwarming and a sweet depiction of funny marital stereotypes with the protagonist navigating the ever-present opinions of his dead wife. I was a little confused as to the overall theme of the show and what anything had to do with this Harvey Milk chap. Then, at long last, we got to the scene involving the letter and things slowly began to fall into place. But I won’t lie, I did find it to be a slow burner at multiple points throughout the viewing. A lesson on Jewish history coupled with subtle comments about sexuality, the arc of the musical numbers was unclear at times due to the over emphasis on the mundane details of everyday life and humour rather than a linear telling of the main plot.

Despite a confusion of themes and a struggle to make connections between the lyrics and the show’s blurb, I must admit director Gerald Armin did a great job when it came to delivering classy gags that had the audience in stitches. The balance of humour with the serious nature of the show was something executed well by the cast and crew. The only downfall of this attempt at light and shade, I felt, came in the musical score. Whilst ringing out beautiful melodies across the Waterloo East Theatre, the program lacked diversity and each tune gave off the same melancholic notes that at points, could’ve been jazzed up a little more to add some deeper dynamics to the show.

A note here on the cast and their delivery. Barry James playing Harry, a retired kosher butcher that writes a letter to his late friend and the state’s first openly gay Politician, Harvey Milk, blew the socks off everyone. I was in awe of his talent and ability to enter into a character’s life and never look back. His performance in the final scene, revealing the thread that sewed the entire script together, was one of painful, raw emotion and a memory I’d struggle to forget. Carol Ball playing Harry’s wife Frannie, brought humour to the stage and Josselyn Ryder as Barbara the lesbian teacher, facilitated the momentum of the story well.

By a mile, the second half of the second act is where the action really began. Gone were the sweet rambles about life as a senior citizen and in came the emotional storyline that really gripped your heartstrings and made bodies recoil with shock. I won’t ruin the twist but just know it’s one you’d never see coming and for me, stole the show. Silence fell over the auditorium so much so that you could genuinely hear a pin drop as Barry screamed his torturous past at us. The rumble of trains passing through Waterloo station above the intimate theatre, only added to the atmosphere as suddenly everything made sense and the two I was going to award this performance quickly smashed up to a goose-bump induced three. It’s fair to say the overall production didn’t blow me away entirely but if only for the twist at the end, I’d recommend getting yourselves a ticket to spend a night with Harry and Harvey Milk.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

{🎟 AD – PR invite – Tickets were gifted in exchange for an honest review}

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