Fanny & Stella: The Shocking True Story opened last week at the Above the Stag Theatre in Vauxhall. The true story of Ernest Boulton and Frederick Park, who scandalised the country by living as women and engaging in “conspiracy to commit sodomy” (a lot). Boulton and Park’s story is one I’ve been fascinated with since first reading Fanny and Stella: The Young Men Who Shocked Victorian England, the 2013 non-fiction book which also inspired this production.
Glenn Chandler’s “play with songs” shows how drama can go so much further than documentary, both in exploring the psychological and socio-cultural constructs of gender and dress, and in centering Fanny and Stella as the narrators of their own story. The play takes the form a show performed in a working men’s club by the pair themselves after their arrest and trial; we the audience are watching the story exactly as Fanny and Stella choose to tell it to us. We seem them bicker between themselves (and with their put upon theatre manager-turned-unwilling actor, played to great effect by the hilarious Mark Pearce), and force the audience to vote on their guilt after a subversively brief and campy recreation of their trial, following brutal interrogation and incarceration in Newgate Prison.
Fanny & Stella is hilarious, campy, and high energy; kicking off with the earworm-inducing ‘Sodomy on the Strand’. The production hangs on the brilliant performances of the two leads, Kieran Parrott and Tobias Charles (making what the programme notes is his professional debut, and one that indicates a long and successful career to come). But what’s most interesting is what’s missing. By allowing Fanny and Stella to control the narrative, we see only what they want us to see. And what they want us to see is a performance, an illusion. The framing device empowers the characters and certainly makes scenes forced intimate examinations easier to watch. We are allowed a glimpse into the glamorous world of sisterhoods and loving marriages between men. They choose not to show us (at least too much) the other side: the abuse and oppression, the prostitution, the early deaths. LGBT people don’t need to see; we live it. We’ve lived it for far too long.
Ernest Boulton/Stella and Frederick Park/Fanny are commemorated with one of the UK’s famous blue plaques outside their old lodgings in Bloomsbury. The plaque reads, simply, “Victorian crossdressers.”
Fanny & Stella: The Shocking True Story runs at the Above the Stag Theatre until 2nd June.