Mark Ludmon reviews the musical Fanny and Stella now playing at The Eagle London in their Garden Theatre. Now extended until 4 September.
Fanny and Stella
The Garden Theatre, The Eagle London
Not so long ago we took theatre for granted. In May last year, I was squeezed with friends on seats inside London’s Above the Stag Theatre, enjoying new musical Fanny and Stella. It was a packed house and the atmosphere was exuberant. We even had the infectious cackle of iconic Hi-de-Hi! star Su Pollard behind us to lift our spirits further. The world has changed since then, with only socially distant outdoor theatre allowed and many theatres set to remain closed till 2021. But at the new outdoor Garden Theatre at The Eagle bar in London, you can forget about this for 90 minutes for a new staging of Fanny and Stella. Men in visors show us to our seats – spaced out as singles or “bubbles” – and we have to wear face masks throughout the performance, but, with its flamboyant theatricality, the show is a perfect antidote to our troubled times. As a further reminder of a more carefree past, I even had Su Pollard laughing and cheering away behind me. (A coincidence rather than a fixture of every performance, I think.)
This production in the repurposed back garden of The Eagle is a slightly trimmed-down and revised version of the original but full of the same bawdy humour and charming songs. It re-tells the story of two real-life young “men”, Ernest “Stella” Boulton and Frederick William “Fanny” Park, who shocked and enchanted Victorian society in the 1870s by dressing and living as women. They shot to fame in 1871 when, after a long period of police surveillance, they were arrested for causing a stir from the box at the Strand Theatre while dressed in full drag. The subsequent court cases, on the very serious charge of conspiracy to commit sodomy, turned them into celebrities and, from a 21st-century perspective, LGBTQ+ pioneers.
Writer Glenn Chandler has taken their story, based on Neil McKenna’s 2013 biography, and turned it into a lively and upbeat musical, with music by Charles Miller. The real-life pair-fed their love of cross-dressing in public by appearing in female roles in amateur theatricals around the country so “for one night only” they have taken over a club in London to tell their own story in the best way they know: through a musical entertainment. It traces the pair’s story back to their childhoods and through their love affairs, including a complex love triangle – or perhaps more accurately a pentagon – involving a number of well-to-do gentlemen, before culminating in their dramatic court appearances. In reality, their lives were at stake as the penalty for sodomy was prison with hard labour – a death sentence for most – but these darker elements are brief in Chandler’s show which accentuates the positive through humour and high kicks.
The songs, under musical director Aaron Clingham, draw heavily on Victorian music hall, with some brilliantly saucy routines including “Has Anyone Seen My Fanny?”. But this is also a love story so Chandler and Miller fit in some gentler ballads that would be at home in a Rodgers & Hammerstein show. With bitchy banter and fabulous attire, Kane Verrall and Jed Berry are excellent as Fanny and Stella, supported by a strong cast including Kurt Kansley, Alex Lodge and Joaquin Pedro Valdes as the three men in their lives. After his stand-out performance in the original production, Mark Pearce returns as the club’s bearded manager, Mr Grimes, roped in to perform all the smaller parts, from a Scottish landlady to a Liverpudlian maid, demonstrating an impressive skill at comedy accents. Again directed by Steven Dexter with musical staging by Nick Winston and design by David Shields, this is a welcome new outing for Fanny and Stella, exuberant and joyful. With winks and direct appeals to the audience, it’s a reminder why we need our theatre to be live and kicking.
Running to 4 September 2020