THE TRANSATLANTIC MAGAZINE
How great it was to go to a physical live theatre performance again. Like being reborn. All credit to the creative team who put this together whilst carefully complying with the many government guidelines on socially distant stage performances. This is the first live production in the London Fringe since March and it takes place in the a newly refurbished beer garden of The Eagle, a legendary gay pub in Vauxhall, and a perfect setting for this story.
The piece itself couldn’t be more of a tonic. Inspired by Neil McKenna’s great book here, form perfectly blends with content. Charles Miller’s music and Glenn Chandler’s book and lyrics use the form of Victorian Music Hall to relate the story of these two amateur theatricals, Ernest Boulton/Stella (Jed Berry) and Frederick William Park/Fanny (Kane Verrall) who in 1871 outraged Victorian society with their antics. These theatricals got in trouble because they stayed in drag off stage too and frequented too many ‘places of entertainment’ in the company of gentlemen. When the law caught up with them, they were put on trial for “dressing as women” and “conspiracy to commit sodomy”, which at the time was a big deal.
Potentially facing a sentence of two years hard labour they were, rather amazingly, acquitted, primarily because conspiracy could not be proven. One having a father who was a judge and the other having a clever mother who swayed the court with her tears, certainly helped. Chandler frames the piece so that on their acquittal the two hire a venue for this “one night only” show, which we witness, and we’re asked to be judge and jury.
Under Steven Dexter’s nimble staging and with the help of David Shield’s plush costumes (Victorian but with a twist) the piece achieves a heady recreation of Victorian London's gay subculture. Remember also that a lot of it would have taken place outside the doors of this same venue, in the notorious Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens. The book very cleverly weaves contemporary newspaper reports, police documents and diaries into a jolly, rollicking, narrative, poking fun at the hypocrisy and in a tone which is often serious but never solemn.
The queer underworld of Oscar Wilde era London is represented by the ‘girls’’ various society suitors, one of whom was US Consul in Edinburgh, no less. These peers and politicians wanted their ‘girls’ to be respectable in the street, something this instinctively rebellious pair could never accept.
Berry and Verrall bring both intelligence and a rambunctious energy to their roles which is compelling and, like Kenneth Williams would, they relish in dishing out “the raw, unvarnished and unpalatable truth”! Kurt Kansley, Alex Lodge, Mark Pearce, and Joaquin Pedro Valdes juggle multiple supporting roles all with great élan but veteran Pearce is particularly droll as a supposed newcomer to this acting game.
It has the energy of a great farce but also works as a musical, not an easy feat. The impressive songs run the emotional gamut from the saucy to the tender. ‘Sodomy on the Strand’ is pure musical hall fare while ‘Has Anyone Seen My Fanny’ gets the barnstorming treatment it deserves. By contrast the lyrical ‘How Can I Forget You’ reminds us hearts too were breaking here. Nick Winston’s staging of the musical numbers references many a tired old musical hall routine, but he invests it all with a winning effervescence.
What it reminds us of, and what musical hall was all about, is the joy of communal live performance, of audience reaction and the ability of quick-witted actors to respond. This quality can never be replaced by online.
Be sure to arrive early because the procedures – temperature check, logging in with the app so they can trace you if needs be, being seated at the bar, the bar being waiter service, being separately moved into the theatre etc. – all take time.