Fanny and Stella
The Garden Theatre
Reviewed – 11th August 2020
“the show is a light and frothy bit of fun”
Sitting in The Garden Theatre, the newly-named performance space at The Eagle in Vauxhall, on a hot summer’s night, sipping an icy vodka and tonic and watching six actors strut their stuff, accompanied by a pianist, is as close to heaven as this reviewer has been for six long months. It was, quite literally, an oasis, in the desperate COVID-created cultural landscape in which we currently find ourselves. And let’s shout it from the rooftops: WE NEED THEATRE! WE NEED LIVE PERFORMANCE! There is a frisson to seeing real people – people like us – telling us a story. We feel it in a different way. So, congratulations to everyone involved in bringing this first taster back to us. It was managed beautifully; a track and trace system and social distancing were in place, but handled with ladlefuls of welcome and humanity by the Eagle staff, and the whole event fizzed with a sense of delight and solidarity.
The show itself is a musical, based on the true story of two young men in Victorian London – Frederick William Park and Ernest Boulton – who were put on trial for dressing as women and conspiring to commit sodomy. Frederick and Ernest – the eponymous Fanny and Stella – were well-known figures, having public dalliances with a bevy of society gentlemen, as well as attending drag balls, which were a feature of gay London life of the period. Glenn Chandler’s book and lyrics emphasise the freedom the young men feel within this world and their right to live as they choose – which is a reminder of the battle against misogyny that femme-presenting gay men and trans women still battle with today. The reminder is there, but the piece is far from a polemic. Steven Dexter (director) and Nick Winston (musical staging) have done a terrific job of bringing some real MT pzazz to this tiny space; the choreography is simple but tight throughout, and the performers make it sing, with Jed Berry (Stella) in particular, leading from the front and dancing with real skill, style and showmanship.
There are a few stand-out numbers, as you would expect, and the opener – Sodomy on the Strand – starts the show with a bang. Alex Lodge (Louis Charles Hurt) does some lovely work in one of the more tender romantic songs, but (’twas ever thus) the show really belongs to the barn stormers, and Kane Verrall (Fanny) gives them exactly the level of gutsy ribald chutzpah they need. He gives a terrific comedy performance throughout, and helps get things back on track on the few occasions when the script loses a bit of energy and pace. There are a couple of jarring moments tonally (the horribly invasive medical scene just didn’t sit right as light comedy) but, as a whole, the show is a light and frothy bit of fun, providing a very welcome 90 minutes of laughter and joy in this strange hot summer of 2020.
Reviewed by Rebecca Crankshaw
Photography by Alex Hinson
Fanny and Stella
The Garden Theatre until 25th August