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The Flea at The Yard Theatre | Review

It felt as though there was as much exposition in this production as there was stage action, and then there are lines of questioning by DI Frederick Abberline (1843-1929) (Scott Karim), assisted by PC Luke Hanks (Sonny Poon Tip) with regards to suspected homosexual activity in Fitzrovia – 19 Cleveland Street, to be precise. The house (I found myself looking this up after the show) no longer exists, having been demolished in the 1890s to accommodate an extension of the Middlesex Hospital, which closed in 2005 and shortly thereafter also demolished.

(T-D) Scott Karim, Connor Finch. Credit Marc Brenner.
(T-D) Scott Karim, Connor Finch. Credit Marc Brenner.

What became known as the ‘Cleveland Street Scandal’ is given a rather amusing treatment here, which doesn’t provide the audience with much of an imposing sense of danger. This doesn’t quite tally with the given the potential implications of what might have happened if all of the details of the alleged activities that took place at 19 Cleveland Street, illegal at the time, became known to all and sundry. That said, there are attempts at clarifying risks, such as Queen Victoria (Norah Lopez Holden) being shown by way of a vision what could occur if she were to decide on a particular course of action, but this is quickly superseded by an alternative vision, where she does the ‘right’ thing.

Only when the teenage Charlie Swinscow (Séamus McLean Ross) faces the prospect of a custodial sentence is there a sense that someone’s future is in jeopardy. Others, such as Lord Arthur Somerset (Connor Finch) are given the chance to escape British jurisdiction by fleeing abroad. There aren’t any pants down demonstrations of brothel activity, though the costume design (Lambdog1066) still has participants, for various reasons, in various states of undress.

It’s sufficiently entertaining when it wants to be, with Lopez Holden also playing Charlie’s mother Emily, who in turn is also the show’s narrator. George Barwell, MP for Bermondsey West (also Poon Tip – all of the five-strong cast have two or three characters each) ends up toeing the party line after a conversation with Gladstone (Karim), Leader of the Opposition at the time, such that the production effectively blames politicians for the resulting cover-up of the scandal, which protected a grandson of Queen Victoria and other aristocrats but left working class young men to take whatever punishments the police were able to push through the courts.

To its credit, there’s full disclosure right at the start of the performance – there are, the audience is informed, things in the narrative that are true, things that may be true, and things that are definitely not. The production as a whole could have been pacier – I found myself from time to time struggling to maintain interest – and, given the comedy angle, considerably hammier. The characters here feel a tad too understated: discretion was, of course, key at the time, but this need not result in being discreet with the audience. The show also ended quite abruptly, and I’d have liked to have more of a sense of finality by way of an epilogue providing details of where the various characters we were kindly introduced to ended up.

3 Star Review

Review by Chris Omaweng

July 1889, London. Charlie Swinscow is arrested for theft. He had more cash on his person than a poor lad like him is expected to have.

(But he didn’t steal. He just let a lord have a go between his legs.)

A retelling of the Cleveland Street Scandal that shook England—from the streets of Bermondsey to the halls of Buckingham Palace—featuring a flea, a horse, a detective, a queen, a pimp, a god, and Charlie, the telegraph boy who knelt before the Crown.

11 October – 18 November 2023

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