A Truly Shocking Tale
Fanny & Stella is the latest show to open at Vauxhall’s Above the Stag, an Off-West End theatre on the Albert Embankment which focuses on producing LGBT-themed shows. It’s an intimate venue underneath the arches, with a remarkably capacious theatre, a friendly, comfortable bar and foyer area – and the authentic charm of an occasional train rumbling overhead!
Fanny and Stella is the ‘shocking true story’ of two men who in the 1870s stood trial at Bow Street magistrates court, charged with “the abominable crime of buggery”, after their cross-dressing ways were deemed unacceptable by Victorian society.
This extraordinary tale was written by and adapted into a celebratory, utterly entertaining music-hall show by Glen Chandler, who based his story on the transcript of the infamous trial at which Frederick Park and Ernest Boulton both appeared in drag.
Both Boulton and Park came from solidly middle-class homes, the sons of a stockbroker and judge respectively – but to their friends they were ‘Stella’ and ‘Fanny’, mixing it up in the gay circles, seedy nightclubs and streets of Soho, in full drag. And when notoriety hit they became better known as the ‘He-She Ladies’…
Chandler leaves few facts to the imagination, except details of the ‘abominable’ act itself. There’s much thrusting, winking and daft innuendo throughout, of course…
‘Drag’ was a popular staple of Victorian London Music Hall, and it wasn’t uncommon to encounter female impersonators in the capital’s gas-lit alleys and back-passages, where a lively scene saw members of the judiciary carousing with actors, barrow-boys and prostitutes. Whilst drag wasn’t illegal, sodomy was certainly ‘ungodly’ and a punishable crime (and would remain so, for another long century). The popular press screamed terminal moral decline, drag queens and homosexuality were threats to propriety and rectitude, and a tide of hypocrisy and moral hysteria was rising…
Steven Dexter’s engaging production encapsulates the Victorian era with style and panache, Charles Miller’s music providing a jaunty aspect to the proceedings with memorable numbers including ‘Sodomy on The Strand’ and the wonderful ‘My Mother’. Musical direction and pianoforte accompaniment are most ably provided by Aaron Clingham, and designer David Shields ingeniously transforms the modest stage into every kind of setting.
An outrageously talented young cast romps manically through this high-camp, farce, everyone playing multiple parts. Keiran Parrot shines as Stella, and Tobias Charles is a frightfully funny Fanny, whose acerbic wit perfectly complements that of Stella, her sister in crime.
Mark Pearce elevates the hysteria as clueless Mr Grimes. A veteran of the Panto circuit, Pearce expends terrific energy and comedic genius, vaulting gleefully from one perfect characterization to the next in a series of hilarious vignettes.
Christian Andrews is Lord Arthur Clinton – the epitome of Victorian aristocratic pomp and hypocrisy, and also the frantic father of two worryingly wayward sons.
Tom Mann is very believable as the struggling Hurt, whose love cannot be reconciled with Ernie’s outrageous alter-ego, Stella. Mann additionally plays a seedy newspaperman, penning lurid, leering headlines that propel our ‘He-She-Ladies’ to salacious notoriety.
Blair Robertson excels as Fiske – the sensitive American in love with Stella – and also as the French forensic expert who, armed with magnifying glass and speculum, sets about gathering evidence for the prosecution from Fanny’s and Stella’s nether regions.
What this production lacks in emotional depth it more than makes up for with unadulterated fun and farce. It’s tight, fast-paced and suitably witty, examining the ‘raw unvarnished truth’ behind two of Britain’s most infamous drag queens…
A cracking story, pitch-perfect performances, marvellous musical arrangements and close vocal harmonies, fantastic costumes and choreography – Fanny and Stella is a theatrical entertainment guaranteed to please even the most jaded senses!
At Above The Stag until 2 June.
72 Albert Embankment
Looking for West End theatre? We also recommend Everybody’s Talking about Jamie, currently showing at the Apollo Shaftesbury Avenue and Waitress, currently showing at the Adelphi