Not all the characters are listed in the (online) programme for Fanny & Stella, so be prepared for a few surprises in a show that begins with light-hearted banter of a most British nature, to the point that I was occasionally reminded of the works of Gilbert and Sullivan. Frederick William Park (Kane Verrall), better known as ‘Dame Fanny’ and Thomas Ernest Boulton (Jed Berry), better known as ‘Stella’ were – according to Boulton and Park’s Wikipedia entry, “Victorian cross-dressers”. A contradiction in terms at face value, but an apt description, nonetheless. They were arrested, as the narrative would have it in the show, while still seated in a box at the Strand Theatre, with conspiracy to commit sodomy. The reasons for this are set out in a surprisingly dense and plot-heavy narrative.
Having introduced various characters and given sufficient background detail, sometimes through direct addresses to the audience, the show deals with the resulting investigations and court trial. The production succeeds in maintaining the audience’s interest through some inventive storytelling – there’s even a song about the legal term ‘certiorari’. The choreography sparkles in parts: despite the effeminate nature of the central characters, it’s easy to note the complete lack of kissing and embracing, thanks to the limitations of social distancing even on stage. I may be giving too much away here, but a socially distanced rectal examination by a police doctor was a particular highlight. (Yes, it’s that sort of show.)
The supporting cast (Kurt Kansley, Alex Lodge, Mark Pearce and Joaquin Pedro Valdes) have, whatever their on-stage and in-character misgivings may be, plenty to do, and quite a few accents between them to show off. That the plot remains faithful to the original true story is commendable, leaving the show with a bittersweet ending rather than the ‘everybody get happy’ conclusion of many musicals.
And, goodness me, it’s very witty. I don’t just mean the raucous lyrics – one of the musical numbers is called ‘Has Anyone Seen My Fanny?’ There’s a lot of subtle humour to enjoy, too, but either way, I doubt the show will win any new fans to the world of musical theatre. It begins by being camp with a capital C and stays there right to the end. The ostentatiousness of it all becomes, depending on one’s disposition, increasingly delightful, or indeed utterly insufferable.
The elephant in the room shouldn’t go unacknowledged: truth be told, I was sat outdoors with a large group of people who were seeing one of the still very few productions of live theatre going on in London some months after The Great Shutdown began. I couldn’t help but like the extra space social distancing demands (if anything, it gives reviewers the chance to scribble a note or two with no risk whatsoever of elbowing their neighbour). Of course, it’s a great thing for theatre to be back, but it is also something of a damning indictment that some of the behaviours exhibited towards Fanny and Stella in 1870 can still be recognised today, for instance, in tabloid newspaper reporting.
Fans of ‘music hall’ songs will love the style of many of the numbers. Aaron Clingham does a sterling job as musical director. Energetic and briskly paced, the production does well to transport its audiences to the late nineteenth-century, with the right balance between flair and pathos – Fanny and Stella are characters that are as easy to root for as they are to sympathise with.
Review by Chris Omaweng
This hugely entertaining, relentlessly entertaining romp is based on bizarre events and real characters in Victorian London.
Jed Berry as Ernest Boulton/Stella and Kane Verrall as Frederick William Park/Fanny.
Kurt Kansley as Lord Arthur Clinton
Alex Lodge as Louis Charles Hurt
Mark Pearce as Mr Grimes
Joaquin Pedro Valdes as John Safford Fiske
It has a first-class creative team led by director Steven Dexter, with musical staging by Nick Winston, musical director Aaron Clingham, designer David Shields and casting by Anne Vosser. It is produced by Peter Bull for LAMBCO Productions.
Please note: face masks or coverings must be worn throughout the performance by socially-distanced audience members.
Peter Bull for LAMBCO Productions
‘Fanny and Stella’
Book and Lyrics by Glenn Chandler
Music by Charles Miller
Directed by Steven Dexter
Musical Staging by Nick Winston
Musical director: Aaron Clingham
Designer: David Shields
Casting by Anne Vosser
The Garden Theatre
at The Eagle
349 Kennington Lane
London, SE11 5QY
Monday, August 3 – Sunday 23 August
Monday at 7.30pm
Tuesday at 6.00pm and 8.30pm
Doors will open 30mins before the performance
Tickets: £16.00 + booking fee
The performance is 80mins (approx) without an interval