THE FLEA at The Yard Theatre
“this is an exciting and stylishly gritty production that does justice to every single story it tells”
In 1880s London, a flea bites a horse that kicks a man, setting off a chain of events that ripples from the boys of the postal service to Queen Victoria herself. Written by James Fritz and directed by Jay Miller, The Flea is an exploration of the threads that run across London, connecting the poor telegraph boy Charlie Swinscow with his mother, with local bad boy Henry Newlove, with Bertie Prince of Wales, and with a queer aristocratic sex ring that will shock the nation. It is not a period piece but a vibrant, vital play that sparks and seethes; an intoxicating production that probes sensitively at the questions at its heart.
Spanning such vast networks, it is remarkably self-assured. Just five cast members share twelve roles between them, and it is a testament to the extremely talented actors that the doubling works as well as it does. We watch Séamus McLean Ross swing effortlessly from the reserved and somewhat listless Charlie Swinscow to the roaring Bertie Prince of Wales, and Norah Lopez Holden is magnetic as the heartbroken seamstress Emily Swinscow, and as Queen Victoria. The highlight is Connor Finch, who delivers nuanced and moving performances as both the bruised, swaggering post office clerk Henry Newlove, and the aristocratic playboy Arthur Somerset, his life and love crumbling before him.
The set, designed by Naomi Kuyck-Cohen, is an unsettling approximation of a Victorian living room, or perhaps a giant mouth, where all the furniture is of an uncertain size, and the cast must clamber up chairs that hang high on the wall, or squeeze themselves into a tiny chaise lounge. This works well alongside the production’s exploration of scale: as we move through the play, it becomes apparent that just about everybody is under the boot of, or looking for the approval of, a higher power. The costumes, designed by Lambdog1066 (with hair and makeup by Dominique Hamilton), are also excellent, traversing the boundary between the ostensibly historical setting and the uncanny, slightly twisted world we find ourselves in. Combined with atmospheric yet subtle sound and lighting design (Josh Anio Grigg and Jonathan Chan respectively) the staging is very versatile, and apt for exploring the play’s sprawling plot.
At times the ambition is too great. It is a testament to Fritz’s writing that no relationship exists in a vacuum, but keeping up with each character’s complex associations and motivations can grow exhausting. Towards the end, the play grows slightly unwieldy and tonally uncertain, carried away by its own potential for vastness. Particularly an extended scene between Queen Victoria and God Himself, while brilliantly delivered, feels unnecessary and distracting. Instead, the play is at its best when it is probing closer to home, managing to pose some incredibly difficult ethical questions without purporting to offer any simple solutions. Ultimately, this is an exciting and stylishly gritty production that does justice to every single story it tells, all the way from the flea through to Queen Victoria.
THE FLEA at The Yard Theatre
Reviewed on 21st October 2023
by Anna Studsgarth
Photography by Marc Brenner
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