Book and lyrics: Glenn Chandler
Music: Charles Miller
Director: Fenton Gray
The weight of history is worn lightly by this smashing new musical about the highlight of Vauxhall’s past. For centuries, the Royal Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens was the centre of the social scene for all classes, providing over-priced food, drink and entertainment to the masses (a real precursor to today’s London experience). This gorgeous musical crams in history, love, social commentary, elegant and bawdy comedy and much else – giving us not just a story about the gardens but a narrative about the vibrant world it represented.
With its staging in the Above the Stag Theatre, it becomes almost site specific. The audience in the railway arch is oriented to look almost directly at the location where the theatre in the Pleasure Gardens once stood. We can easily imagine just where romantic shipping clerk Ralph meets gardener Tom for the first time. We can see their flirtation, the challenge presented by the proud “sod” Lord Lovelock, the tensions created by the Crimean War and changing social tastes, the persecution and strength of the LGBTQ+ community and all through it, we can see a neat thread of class commentary.
Glenn Chandler’s writing is delightful, full of waspy little puns (often dripped louchley by the camp aristocrat Lord Lovelock) making references for this modern audience fit seamlessly into the historical patter. It’s also very smart. Into this entertaining love story (between the characters, and between the world and the Gardens themselves) Chandler has slipped in a fascinating social history lesson of the Crimean War. However, with so much to cover, it feels like the editing journey of this piece is being exposed. It whips along at a serious pace. At many points, it feels like there’s a lot more the writer wanted his characters to say, lending it the air of an old fashioned comedy of manners play where hard choices were made to ensure they could fit in the ambitiously scoped story.
With such momentum gathered, to have the wheels come off at the end is a shame. There’s simply too much to do to conclude everything in good pace and detail. In the space of five minutes, Tom returns from war, greets all his friends, reflects on the injustice of LGBTQ+ persecution in Victorian England, displays some PTSD, gets dumped, becomes employed and is asked to provide an heir for a large country estate. And still more happens in this race to wrap up. It’s a juddering halt for what was until the end a smooth, quickly paced and very enjoyable musical.
The performances, conveying this packed agenda, are top notch. As the focal points of the story Jay Worley as Ralph the shipping clerk, Sam Baumal as Tom the gardener, and Rory-Charlie Campbell as the roguish Lord Lovelock are a strong trio. Providing the musical backing to all the action the live band of keyboard, various wind and cello directed by Aaron Clingham was just as we needed, delivering subtlety, nuance and verve when called on.
It’s all framed beautifully by the perfectly balanced visuals. David Shield’s design for the fantastic set and costumes, Joseph Ed Thomas’ lighting and George Reeve’s video made a small stage feel cavernous, reflective of the gentle expanse of the Pleasure Gardens themselves.
It all combines to be far more than the sum of its parts. The oddly cramped conclusion aside, it’s a powerful story of love, history and Victorian LGBTQ+ culture. The true wonder of this is how elegantly it’s all told.
Runs until 17 October 2021