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.
“Bryony Buckle may be ‘astoundingly average’ but Vulvarine’s cast and direction are anything but”
Vulvarine: A New Musical is a superhero comic musical parody which tells the story of Bryony Buckle (Allie Munro), a young woman who lives an exceedingly ordinary life in the uneventful town of High Wycombe. Bryony checks tax codes by day and sips red wine with her cat Elton (Robyn Grant) by night. That is, however, before she is transformed into the superhero Vulvarine following a hormone injection at the doctor’s and a convenient lightning strike.
Following the discovery of an error in the tampon tax, Vulvarine, her best friend Poppy (Katie Wells) and her pretty boy love interest Orson Bloom (Jamie Mawson) must take on the misogynistic Mansplainer (Robyn Grant) and his wife Sonya (Steffan Rizzi) before women in High Wycombe and beyond are made subservient by his Hormone-a-beam.
Through Vulvarine: A New Musical, Artistic Director Robyn Grant aims to highlight the extensive use of hormonal medication amongst women. Grant herself was on the contraceptive pill for period pain from the age of fourteen and it was only ten years later that she became aware of its terrifying side effects. With the rising wave of abortion restrictions in America, Grant hopes Vulvarine will inspire women to take control of their own bodies and revolt against those who wish to restrict womankind. Despite these powerful themes, Vulvarine: A New Musical never takes itself too seriously and succeeds in engaging its audience with these important topics in a fun and light-hearted way.
Vulvarine: A New Musical is exceedingly funny. The cast take a little while to warm up, but the show is soon in full swing with a laugh a minute. The dialogue is quick and hyperaware of the superhero clichés it draws on. Instances of actors breaking the fourth wall such as when a stagehand lifts a chair to demonstrate Vulvarine’s super-strength before looking at the audience, going ‘oops!’ and running off stage are wonderfully humorous additions.
The stage consists of a simple cardboard townscape for most of the show but becomes more elaborate towards the performance’s end with the incorporation of a (cardboard) control panel and shark tank when the protagonists infiltrate Mansplainer’s lair. The props (Hugh Purves) are a lot of fun and include a plastic pigeon on a stick which transports Bryony and Poppy to a park bench and a muppet-style puppet acting as Elton the Cat. At times the stage does seem rather crowded, but the cast work well with the space they have.
Grant shines throughout and Munro is a strong lead. Wells, Mawson and Rizzi all provided excellent support with the former electrifying the stage with the solo ‘Boys will be Boys’. Other notable songs are the Avenue Q-esque ‘Licking My Anus’ performed by Elton the Cat and ‘Who’s that Girl’ performed by both Bryony and Poppy and nicely threaded throughout the musical in multiple reprises. Bryony Buckle may be ‘astoundingly average’ but Vulvarine’s cast and direction are anything but.
Reviewed by Flora Doble
Photography by Lidia Crisafulli
King’s Head Theatre until 6th July then UK Tour continues