Tom Conroy and Danny Ball from Holding the Man. (Supplied)
Tom Conroy and Danny Ball from Holding the Man. (Supplied)
5 min read

The lead actors of the new reimagined production of the classic Australian memoir of Timothy Conigrave’s life Holding the Man, suggest audiences will be immersed directly into the story as part of the Belvoir St Theatre stage.

“The audience will meaningfully contribute to the story every night, and I think each performance will be different because the audience are going to be huge contributors to the dynamic and the energy,” explained Danny Ball who plays John in the new Tommy Murphy adaptation of the book.

The stage adaptation of Holding the Man, a story by Conigrave about meeting the love of his life and then seeing both cruelly struck down with AIDS, has been around since 2006 and performed in many different ways. This new version is currently playing in the Upstairs Theatre at Belvoir St Theatre in Surry Hills, Sydney.


Still, this time, with the guidance of Murphy, this new production has infused the idea of community by placing the audience on stage with the performers.

“It’s very much a new production of a classic Australian play,” said Tom Conroy who is playing Tim. “Tommy’s[Tommy Murphy] been around in the rehearsal room a little bit, and has tinkered a little bit with some lines but the play is largely the same now as it was when it was first done 17 years ago.”

Tom Conroy plays Tim in Holding the Man rehearsals. (Supplied)
Tom Conroy plays Tim in Holding the Man rehearsals. (Supplied)

When the director Eamon Flack and Designer Stephen Curtis were working through the set design they knew the classic productions had existed on Sydney stages for years. What they wanted to do was give the Belvoir St audience a new experience.

“They’ve taken it a step further with this design by getting the audience on stage,” said Conroy, “and there are times during the show where we are sitting in amongst the audience, they’re really sort of watching scenes play out right next to them.”

Ball suggested they expect the audience to contribute to the story every night.

“They’re part of the story and I think it goes to what Tom was saying about it’s kind of inclusive and it’s like building a community, which I think is a really beautiful concept for the show,” said Ball.

If you have never read the book, seen the feature film or watched the play, the story starts at a Jesuit boys’ school, in 1970s Australia, where Tim’s eye falls on the footy captain, John. To their mutual incredulity, they fall in love. A love that lasts as they — and the society around them — change and mature.

When they both test positive to something called HIV, dreams, liberations and boundless possibilities vanish into the ether. But Tim and John have each other, and they’ll need to hold on tight for what’s to come.

Tom Conroy (Tim) and Danny Ball (John) at rehearsals for Holding the Man. (Supplied)
Tom Conroy (Tim) and Danny Ball (John) at rehearsals for Holding the Man. (Supplied)

Directed by Flack, the cast includes Danny Ball (Stan’s Totally Completely Fine), Tom
Conroy (The Master and Margarita), Russell Dykstra (ABC’s In Limbo), Rebecca Massey (ABC’s Utopia), Guy Simon (STC’s The Visitors), and Shannen Alyce Quan (SIX: The Musical).

Speaking with Gay Nation, Ball and Conroy said they weren’t nervous about playing such an iconic story but understood the responsibility of performing in such an important play.

“It’s a story that means a lot to a lot of people,” said Ball.

“But in terms of pressure, initially for me is the connection between John and Tim, because that’s really what you need to flesh out and solve. The whole story really hinges on that.”

Danny Ball plays John in Holding the Man. (Supplied)
Danny Ball plays John in Holding the Man. (Supplied)

Conroy and Ball have been working with intimacy Coordinator Nigel Poulton to make sure their intimate moments are coordinated correctly and everyone feels safe and comfortable.

“We’ve been working very closely with him[Poulton] with all the times that we kiss, anytime there’s any sex on stage,” explained Conroy.

“It’s important to all of us to make sure that it’s sexy and physical and sort of full of desire and need because that was part of their relationship and is part of any gay or straight relationships really.

“It’s something that is historically been very much sidelined in terms of telling gay stories. I hope for a lot of the audiences it will be a really beautiful thing and a self-affirming thing for the audience as well.”

Tom Conroy (Tim) and Danny Ball (John) at rehearsals for Holding the Man. (Supplied)
Tom Conroy (Tim) and Danny Ball (John) at rehearsals for Holding the Man. (Supplied)

Although the production is a gay male story and has been placed close to the Mardi Gras season in Sydney, Conroy and Ball are expecting a great mix of people in the audience.

“It’ll be interesting to see what the audience is like,” said Conroy, “I hope we get a really queer audience.”

“Eamon’s[Flack] been doing some really great work with kind of thinking around some of the characters. Shannen Alyce Quan is one of the actors in the cast and Shannon and Eamon have been trying to look at ways of placing other sorts of sexualities and texture in the work as well through bisexuality or lesbianism.

“Trying to flesh it out a little bit more than it just being a gay romance. So hopefully it appeals to a large cross-section of people just within the queer community and then hopefully we get a whole bunch of straight people who are just up for watching two dudes get it on.”

Holding the Man Playwright Tommy Murphy at rehearsals. (Supplied)
Holding the Man Playwright Tommy Murphy at rehearsals. (Supplied)

Ball mentioned a play he performed in 2023 where he played a young gay man and the audience was full of middle-aged heterosexual women who became very emotional with the show as they connected to having incredibly conservative parents and being unable to express their sexuality. Then seeing a young gay man experience the same thing, they found it very, very confronting.

“I think likewise in Holding the Man, there’s a lot of dimensions to these things, and I think people will find different elements really powerful,” Ball said.

“And also,” Conroy jumped in, “part of what Tim and John had to deal with.”

“Where they were up against the idea that firstly being gay was a choice, and secondly that gay relationships were just about sex, there was something dirty about it, and that it wasn’t really possible for two men to really love each other.

“And that is so horrific, but the play is such an antidote to that sort of thinking. Society’s come such a long way since then, but ultimately it’s a story about two people falling in love when they’re teenagers, and it’s a great love story, and it shows two people who’ve loved each other for most of their lives having to come to terms with the fact that one of them is going to die, and one of them has to witness the love of their life die.

“That’s something that if you’re lucky enough to fall in love with anyone, and have a lifelong relationship with them, the sad reality of that is that then you have to deal with the heartbreak of letting that person go.

“That is something that’s so human, and so universal, and ultimately is going to be something that I think will hit home with everybody who comes,” Conroy concluded.

The cast and team from Holding the Man at rehearsals. (Supplied)
The cast and team from Holding the Man at rehearsals. (Supplied)

Conroy and Ball are joined by a stellar cast in the Upstairs Theatre, Belvoir St Theatre in Holding the Man. The season is from 9 March to 14 April and tickets are available here.

Last Updated on Mar 10, 2024

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