The True Tale Of Fanny And Stella Is No Drag
Londonist Rating: ★★★★☆
Silly songs, cultural history, pathos, innuendo, courtroom drama, dancing, period frocks — Fanny & Stella: The Shocking True Story has something to please (almost) everyone. This fringe show underneath a railway arch in Vauxhall tells the tale of two Victorian transvestites and suspected prostitutes who were tried for “Sodomy on the Strand” — as the leading number puts it — only to become tabloid newspaper staples and, in Stella’s case at least, a theatrical entertainer.
This last point of historical detail gave the writer, Glenn Chandler — best known for creating the Scottish crime drama Taggart — the idea of framing the play as music-hall entertainment for the “Bermondsey Working Men’s Club”. This narrative device works superbly, making Fanny & Stella a delicious cocktail of serious theatre on the one hand and vaudeville on the other. In reality, of course, we are not in a Bermondsey working men’s club but in Above the Stag, which claims to be Britain’s only full-time LGBT theatre. The name is misleading: it used to be above a pub in Victoria, but moved to a back alley — the source of one of the play’s many bawdy gags — in gay-friendly Vauxhall in 2013.
The working men of Victorian Bermondsey might have been a tougher crowd — which is perhaps Chandler’s point. As it is, the audience on press night enthusiastically and unanimously exonerate Fanny & Stella when called upon to act as jury in their trial. This result is historically accurate. The prosecution struggled to find anything criminal in men wearing dresses, or to prove beyond reasonable doubt that Ernest Boulton and Frederick Parks — their real names — had engaged in anal sex, which was then a crime.
The court case dominates the second half after the first half introduces us to the young men’s middle-class backgrounds and love affairs. The gay coterie includes a foolish member of parliament, Lord Arthur Clinton, a sincere but drag-hating telegraph worker, Louis, and a charming US diplomat, Fiske, who promises to show Stella / Boulton the “upstanding monuments” of Edinburgh (cue much laughter).
These and other parts are played with impressive versatility by James Robert Moore, Alexander Allin and Christopher Bonwell, while Phil Sealey proves hilarious as the jack-of-all-roles music-hall man and Marc Gee Finch camps it up convincingly as both Fanny and Stella’s naively liberal mother. But the real star of the show is Robert Jeffery as the pretty, wilful libertine Boulton. The songs, by Charles Miller in a Victorian pastiche style somewhat reminiscent of Gilbert & Sullivan, makes the most of Jeffery’s excellent voice in particular.
If there is a flaw with the show, it is perhaps that amid all the hilarity no coherent picture emerges of Fanny and Stella as much more than entertainers or historical curios. But perhaps that’s the inevitable problem of writing a play about drag artists — it’s hard to get under their make-up.
Fanny & Stella is playing at Above The Stag Theatre, Arch 17, Miles Street, SW8 until 14 June. Tickets £18. We saw this show on a complimentary ticket.
Last Updated 17 May 2015