The Eagle, Vauxhall, London, 04/08/2020.
After over four long and very painful months theatre is back in London, or at least one production is as it’s playing in the beer garden of Vauxhall’s The Eagle. It was a very different piece to the one I was expecting too, if only because beforehand all I knew about it was that it was written by Glenn Chandler, the creator of the very gritty and often dour cop drama Taggart. Given that I had no idea if it would even fit the site’s remit, but it’s almost the opposite to his popular Scottish crime series as it’s a high energy musical about two drag queens in Victorian England
Based on a true story it’s a quite meta affair as it sees Thomas Boulton and Frederick Park, aka Fanny and Stella, putting on a production about their lives as drag queens (or he/she ladies, as they refer to themselves), with the duo only not dressed up as women if they have little or no choice in the situation, and how after leaving the theatre one night in 1870 they were arrested and accused of the crime of sodomy. A high profile court case followed, but before we discover if they were found guilty or not we’re whisked back and shown the events leading up to their arrest.
What follows is a romantic comedy as Stella is in a relationship with the MP Lord Arthur Clinton, but childhood friend Louis is madly in love with him and after Arthur reveals that he has been bankrupted by Stella’s never ending spending, Stella heads up to Scotland to be with Louis . The only problem is that Louis wants Stella to give up being a drag queen, something his friend, and American Consul, John does not care about. But who will Stella choose? And will being arrested destroy all of their dreams?
The fact that the pair are staging their own story allows for a fair amount of amusing fourth wall breaking and occasional pieces of commentary about what’s taking place, while the proprietor of the fictional theatre is roped in to play a number of roles and often asks if he’s doing it right. This leads it to having an almost pantomime-esque feel at times, and generates a lot of strong laughs, and though it is an undoubtedly deliberately highly camp work it’s more than capable of reining itself in when needed to add emotional depth.
The script is an extremely strong one as it examines Fanny and Stella’s lives and the highs and lows both experience, mostly revolving around the frustrations of living in a society which might allow men to dress as women on stage but out in public it was a whole other matter, and of course homosexuality was still illegal and would be for a long time yet. There’s a fair sprinkling of innuendo in the play and it’s smartly done and almost always funny, but the emotional aspects hit home extremely effectively as well and these are characters you will care for an enormous amount.
The performances are all pretty stellar throughout and Jed Berry definitely deserves awards for his portrayal of the complex Stella, and though Kane Verrall’s Fanny is largely a far camper and far dafter character he’s just as good. Meanwhile Joaquin Pedro Valdes, Mark Pearce, Alex Lodge and Kurt Kansley take on a variety of different roles and all impress, it’s rare for their not to be a weak link in a fringe theatre cast but that’s definitely the case here.
Alas there is a minor downside, as not all of the songs are that memorable. A couple are a delight, the very funny (if slightly repetitive) “Sodomy At The Strand” is a fun piece, as is a number asking the question “Anyone Seen My Fanny?”, while a song about Stella’s Mother is a stand out number. But with the latter coming right at the end it did make me wish more of the songs had been that impressive, none are bad but many are just fairly okay, average, likeable for sure but if the soundtrack was made available to buy I wouldn’t be buying it.
Fortunately everything else about the production is extremely enjoyable, the direction and choreography match the acting and the script, and this is a production with an important message, so even though the outcome for the characters may not be a completely happy one it shows just how important their actions were. If only the songs were a little better it would have been something I’d rave about, but as it is it’s just something I liked a good deal, a play I’m glad I’ve seen but won’t be rushing back to watch a second time.
As an aside, special thanks should go to the staff at The Eagle who not only put on the production during this difficult time but also carefully and considerately observed social distancing rules and provided hand sanitiser in several places, as well as making sure everyone in the audience wore masks throughout the play.
The production’s official site is here.