Fanny and Stella, Garden Theatre, Eagle London

It’s a bit grandiose to suggest that theatre was reborn in Kennington last week, but the recent spate of tiny cultural lifeboats popping up in gardens, parks and courtyards all over the UK – of which LAMBCO Productions’ ‘Fanny and Stella’ is one of the more polished, and certainly the most fun – are perhaps the first labour pains.

It’s hard to know how to tackle writing about a musical I last reviewed only a year ago (Above the Stag’s May 2019 production) that is momentous simply for existing in a particular time and place. The experience of simply sitting in an audience, watching theatre live and not on Zoom, is heady. Fortunately the quality of the performance supports the hype.

Fanny and Stella, performed by a universally accomplished six-person all-male cast, tells the story of Ernest Boulton and Frederick Park. These two young gay men openly adopted female personas both as performers and in their private and public lives, in an era when “conspiracy to commit sodomy” was a crime. These two devoted sisters reclaim their narrative by performing their past woes as a play within a play, scattered with cheeky Victorian-era musical pastiches like the riotious earworm ‘Sodomy on the Strand.’
The brittle and waspish Stella hides great vulnerability, ably expressed by Jed Berry (possessed of the most eloquent eyebrows since Roger Moore, and such charm he could ably play any female rom-com lead). Fanny (Kane Verrall striking the perfect balance of humour, innocence and coarseness) is lighter; more needy yet somehow emotionally sturdier. Stella/Earnest’s relationship with Lord Arthur Clinton (a charismatic Kurt Kansley) is played as a real romance, exploring the wrenching conflict between pursuing true love with someone whose own needs clip your wings or settling for someone you don’t respect who lets you be whatever you want to be. Queer culture is inherently about illusion; being what you’re not in order to become what you really are on the inside.

As a certain nameless celebrity audience member called out, “it’s very political.” There are a few sharp contemporary references, but the real political bite comes from the realisation that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Fanny and Stella openly use their money and connections to escape oppression. Joaquin Pedro Valdes’s steely John Fiske is a gay, Confederate-supporting American presaging the rise of log cabin Republicans. Stella’s steadfastly supportive mother (lending tea gowns to her effeminate son) would be organising PFLAG meetings if she’d been born a few decades later. By contrast Fanny/Frederick’s painful post-arrest exchange with his father leads to a moment when the music stops, the laughter stops, everything stops dead for five seconds and in that moment of utter silence exists the pain of generations of queer youth rejected by their families for being who they are.

The small Eagle pub garden necessitated slightly lower key dancing and more low-fi music, but the able choreography felt appropriate and not constrained by the space. I don’t know if it was being outdoors, alcohol, the heatwave, or more likely simply the rush of being At The Theatre again, but something subtly extraordinary happened. The audience were vocally appreciative to the point nearly of turning this into an audience-interactive piece, and normally that drives me nuts, but somehow it just felt… really nice. The magic of theatre is in its liveness; warm bodies sharing space in the dark. I’ve never heard the word Bishop’s Stortford bring down the house before, and it’s not to say that Fanny and Stella isn’t genuinely very funny because it is, but the giddiness was that of people laughing together for the first time in months.

If the Great Cultural Interregnum kills anything, and it unfortunately will, let it be the death of traditional silent proscenium arch theatre. I’m sick of watching theatre on screens; I don’t want to recreate the experience of that divide in an actual theatre. Let theatre be communal, let it be anarchic, and let us exist in a space together and create shared joy. Fanny and Stella – Ernest Boulton and Frederick Park – were not heroes or honourable or perhaps even especially talented. They were momentous simply for existing, in a particular time and place; for being unashamedly themselves, and for being together no matter what.

Fanny and Stella runs at the Garden Theatre, Eagle London in Kennington until 4th September. COVID restrictions including temperature checking, hand sanitiser, masks, and social distancing/bubbles are in place.

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