REVIEW: Fanny and Stella, Above The Stag ✭✭✭✭

Fanny and Stella directed by Steven Dexter at Above The Stag Theatre
Robert Jeffrey, Christopher Bonwell, Marc Gee Finch, Alexander Allin and James Robert-Moore in Fanny And Stella. Photo: Derek Drescher

Fanny and Stella
Above The Stag Theatre
15 May 2015
4 Stars

If you go down to the arches at Vauxhall today, you will no doubt encounter the delightful musical concoction that is Fanny And Stella.

Based on the true story of Ernest Boulton (Stella) and William Park (Fanny), the musical tells the story of two notorious Victorian cross-dressers whose arrest and trial caused a sensation. Told in the form of a post-trial musicale at the Bermondsey Working Men’s Institute, this is a thoroughly entertaining evening, that best resembles a slightly bawdy musical hall melodrama.

Writer Glenn Chandler and composer Charles Miller have written a brightly paced, thoroughly enjoyable evening in the theatre whose ribaldry is well mixed with liberal doses of 21st Century incredulity at how society of the time treated those who dared to be deviate from sexual norms.

You could easily be convinced that the writers had used real songs from musical halls of the period with songs such as Sodomy On The Strand and Where Has My Fanny Gone? gracing the stage, such is the authentic feel of the material presented. Each has the boname of the period and fits seamlessly into the action.

Marc Gee Finch (Fanny) and Robert Jeffrey (Stella) command the stage from their first entrance. Both inhabit their roles fully with all the swish, campery and drama that one might expect of two young gay gentlemen of the period enamoured with appearing as ladies in public. In women’s attire they are fierce, strong and relentless, but in men’s clothing you see a fragility and the fear that these characters must have faced when imprisoned for a year awaiting trial.

Director Steven Dexter has assembled a tight ensemble of actors to bring the key characters in Fanny and Stella’s story to life. Alexander Allin (Fiske), James Robert-Moore (Clinton) and Christopher Bonwell (Hart) give us a sampling of society from the upper echelons to imported Canadians with a few assorted press types in Act Two. As master of ceremonies Mr Grimes, Phil Sealey plays the role for all the humour he can muster. Grimes tries to keep the evenings proceedings civil and within the confines of Victorian propriety but to no avail.

Choreographer Carole Todd, has staged the evening’s musical numbers, keeping the evening moving along at a brisk pace on David Shield’s simple set whose two large wardrobes add a whole new meaning to coming out of the closet.

Gay themed theatre can be hit and miss at the best of times but Chandler, Miller, Dexter and Todd have fashioned an evening that could well break free of its LGBT base and find a wider audience.

There are laughs aplenty in Fanny and Stella, but also an underlying sadness at the persecution of two young men who did no harm to society except for upsetting the sensibilities of society at the time. Compared and contrasted to modern day Britain we have come along way but it does show just how long it took us to get here and just how far behind some of the rest of the world remain.

Fanny And Stella runs at Above The Stag in Vauxhall until 14 June 2015

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