After 149 days of live theatre lockdown – yes, I have been counting – I was always going to love the first trip back to a show. Thank you, thank you, LAMBCO Productions, for the first fringe production since March. But, sincerely, Glenn Chandler’s play with music is a jolly affair that is well worth seeing. It’s entertaining, interesting and a lot of fun.
Chandler takes on a lot, and admittedly over-reaches. Based on true events, a show-within-a-show format tells the story of performers Ernest Boulton (AKA Stella) and Frederick William Park (Fanny), who dressed as women offstage as well as on and were arrested for doing just that in 1871. The history is light: there’s not enough shock about the men’s “painted faces” and not much peril. It is in questionable taste that the medical examination Boulton and Park had to undergo is played for laughs. And the idea of either man as a transwoman is not explored. Chandler’s decision is to entertain, and this is what he does.
Going for pleasure makes the setting of The Eagle pub garden in Vauxhall appropriate and the audience were clearly smiling under their face masks. All manner of crudity and old jokes are allowed and the cast camp it up considerably (David Shields’ clever costume designs are useful here). Special mention to the hard-working Mark Pearce, who takes on so many roles and accents. And to Alex Lodge, who plays one of the (many) loves of Fanny’s life, injecting some romantic moments and also doing well as a gutter-press journalist.
The evening’s stars are Jed Berry and Kane Verrall in the inimitable title roles, which both the script and director Steven Dexter balance nicely. The chemistry is great and there’s a convincing sense of sisterhood along with some fine comic timing. Both work the crowd wonderfully. All of this is accompanied by Charles Miller’s clever little songs – all, importantly, performed live. It really is a great night out… the best I’ve had in 149 days, actually.
A true story that’s a gift to a dramatist, Victorian transvestites Ernest Boulton and William Park, with their inspiring friendship, risqué love affairs and dangerous brush with the law, are truly fascinating. Playwright Glenn Chandler’s masterstroke is to have the characters’ eponymous drag personas present their own story in a music-hall style that makes for great entertainment.
Charles Miller’s accompanying Victoriana songs are a wicked delight that I’d have like to have heard more of. And the whole cast is superb. Phil Sealey, whose character represents the manager of the venue uneasily hosting Fanny and Stella’s performance, takes on numerous roles in the retelling of their shocking story. Along with the ladies’ attempts to outshine each other, there’s a faux improvised humour that adds charm as well as laughter. As for the rest of the many jokes, some gags positively creak and the plentiful innuendo isn’t exactly sophisticated, but it’s all great fun.
While the history forms an effective questioning of Victorian attitudes, there’s a purposefully contemporary feel to the show, seen most clearly in the two leads. Robert Jeffery and Marc Gee Finch, in the title roles, are both fine performers, great with the songs and even better with the show’s bitching – sorry, ladies, I daren’t pick a favourite. Camping it up for all their worth, yet capable of providing space for more sombre moments, it’s always funny to see characters milking applause when they are so clearly already commanding the spotlight.
The second half, dealing with Fanny and Stella’s scandalous trial and cruel imprisonment, drops off a little. There’s a touch of preaching to the choir and wish fulfilment – I am not convinced the story shows an early ‘victory’ over prejudice – but the show knows its audience; as the UK’s only full-time professional LGBT theatre, receiving no public subsidy, Above The Stag can’t afford not to. It’s a tribute to the show’s strength that I think the company is selling itself short. I’d love to see the show in a bigger venue (what about Wilton’s Music Hall?) and believe Fanny and Stella have the potential to appeal to all – they deserve to be massive stars.