Book and Lyrics: Glenn Chandler
Music: Charles Miller
Director: Steven Dexter
Slowly, ever so slowly, fringe theatre is awaking from its virus-induced coma. Things are not quite the same, though: as Vauxhall gay pub The Eagle converts its garden into an open-air theatre, its interior becomes a tightly delineated waiting area; when the house opens, temperatures are taken, hand sanitiser dished out, and the audience are told to wear masks for the duration of the performance.
One of the upsides of “the new normal”, from an audience perspective, is the socially distanced space around each seat, lending a patina of decadence to an otherwise fraught situation. And one imagines that, on days that are less hot and humid than Tuesday’s press night, wearing a mask for the show’s duration would not be too intolerable.
For the Eagle’s inaugural production, Glenn Chandler and Charles Miller’s Fanny and Stella provides a winning combination of laughs, pastiches of music-hall balladeering and a smattering of LGBT history.
Thomas Ernest Boulton (Jed Berry) and Frederick William Park (Kane Verrall) were Victorian stage performers who would typically take female roles; offstage, they would appear in public in drag or, when dressed in male attire, would continue to wear make-up.
Adopting the names Fanny and Stella, Chandler’s script has the pair relate their tale as a music hall narrative, full of saucy songs that would make Marie Lloyd blush and plenty of winks to the audience.
As befits the style of this presentation, the performances are often over-the-top and replete with an air of comic melodrama – most notably from Mark Pearce’s Grimes, the emcee who takes on numerous small parts throughout the tale.
But there is also an air of seriousness amongst the bawdiness, as befits the tale of the couple’s prosecution — the court case of which led to one of the first usages in print of “drag” meaning dressing in women’s clothing.
The pair’s story is dominated by Berry’s Boulton/Stella, who lives as a wife to gay MP Lord Arthur Clinton (Kurt Kansley), and who faces resistance to his flamboyant behaviour from Alex Lodge as Boulton’s childhood boyfriend Louis.
Despite its mid-1800s setting, there are echoes of the resistance some members of the modern gay community air towards trans and genderqueer people. Director Steven Dexter keeps the atmosphere light and dynamic, even through the pair’s darkest times, allowing us to be entertained first and ruminate on the historical lessons at our leisure.
And what entertainment. Verrall’s Fanny comes across as the stronger vocalist of the titular pair, while Berry impressively conveys the air of a man who has so much sadness behind his painted face.
The overall result is a piece which disguises itself as a musical and which tells us it is but an evening of slight frippery. Look closer, and you see a tale of immense depth and character.
Continues until 25 August 2020.