In 1976, nigh on 20 million Brits tuned in to watch John Curry win a figure skating gold at the Winter Olympics in Innsbruck, Austria. 18 years later, “four of us” attended his funeral. “Us” referring to artists from the business known as show. Or in this case, no-show. Shocking! Or as writer and performer Tony Timberlake ponders: “Huge public adoration to virtually nothing. How can that be?”
Following on from a highly successful run at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre in November of last year, this touching and humorous one-man show about “the invisible thread” which connects Timberlake to Curry – both “soft and vulnerable, encased in something stronger, trying to find [their] way in the world” – is as much a celebration of the former’s childhood hero (once lauded as “Nureyev of the Ice” but later scorned as “fairy for the tree”) as it is about his own personal journey from shame of “the part of me I’m fearful of revealing” to pride that “effeminate boys can win”.
Utilising a solitary white chair and a selection of carefully chosen slides and video projections (including grainy images of Curry’s mesmerising medal-winning performance), this is fringe theatre at its finest. Timberlake’s script is as tight as a triple salchow; his performance warm and engaging, funny and self-deprecating, as he shifts effortlessly between narration and a conveyor belt of comical characters; and Tessa Walker’s deft direction utilises every inch of the postage stamp-sized stage of Assembly’s Baillie Room to a tee, thus avoiding the twin pitfalls of aimless wandering and being rooted to the spot which have blighted many a one-man show.
The end, in particular, is deeply moving as Timberlake ties up a plot strand involving his older brother who is depicted by a series of harsh taunts such as: “Do you have a girlfriend yet? Does she have a hairy chest? Does she have any friends (as in Dorothy)?” But the overriding message is one of hope and, above all, honouring the courage of those brave men and women like John Curry who were open about their sexuality at a time when the eyes and ears of the world and his heterosexual wife were firmly closed.
Or as Timberlake more succinctly puts it, “it’s what we leave behind” that matters. Whether that’s a legacy of encouraging more young men to take up ice skating. Or, more importantly, a positive role model which paves the way for future generations of LGBT people to be open and honest about their lives. According to his biographer Bill Jones, Curry is reported to have said to the actor Alan Bates that: “I never wanted a long life. I just hope I have done something with it.” Affirmative on both points. Sadly on the former; and as Timberlake says of the latter, “brilliant”.