Those of you that know me in my personal life may be aware of the fact that I’m 1) slightly goffick 2) into wearing historically accurate Victorian clothing (comes from acting in Gilbert and Sullivan, true fact) 3) struggling with a life-long crush on Tim Curry’s Frank N Furter. I’ve also been a gay ally since I was in high school, which was actually a bit of a dangerous thing back in the early eighties (not that I cared). Wrap this all up in a bow and what you have is, essentially, the perfect target audience for Above the Stag’s latest production: Fanny and Stella: The Shocking True Story. In fact, I was also the target audience for the book Fanny and Stella: The Young Men Who Shocked Victorian England (I saw a poster for it in Soho last spring and took a picture of it so I could remember the title), which is how I originally became aware of these two Victorian cross dressers. While the book is the same story from which the play is based, apparently Glenn Chandler, the writer, did his own original research for this show. In fact, he came up with the nugget of it back in 2010/11 when he was doing research for his musical Cleveland Street Boys. So, it can’t be considered an adaptation of the book: it is an original undertaking which takes full advantage of its form to stick mostly to the facts while presenting them in a deliciously theatrical way. Did Fanny and Stella take the story of their lives on the road (in grand Jeremy Kyle fashion)? No, but pretending they did makes for a very entertaining evening of theater.
The choice to deliver a history lesson in the form of a music hall revue is not just charming (I like a singalonga) but very appropriate, both in terms of giving us more of a feeling of Victorian culture but also in placing the characters in a situation which would have been natural for them, as both William Park (Fanny – Marc Gee Finch) and Ernest Boulton (Stella – Robert Jeffrey) played women on the stage in the 1870s. Pretending we were all at the Bermondsey Working Men’s club with a hammy MC (Mr Grimes – Phil Sealy) filling in the roles added several extra layers of humor to the evening. But in addition to the good times of the theatrical life, we also get nice, thick slices of Fanny and Stella’s (especially Stella’s) home life. Stella is a very popular girl – she’s not just kept by a lord (Arthur Clinton – the comic James Robert Moore) but whisked away by her childhood sweetheart (Louis Charles Hart – the sincere Christopher Bonwell) and also manages to attract the attention of the rather delicious American consul Robert Safford Fiske (the dangerous Alexander Allin). Fanny’s no stick in the mud herself, though, as she keeps Lord Clinton’s bed warm in Stella’s absence. Whoops, “Where’s My Fanny Gone” indeed!
As we work through the background of theses characters’ lives – with plenty of stops for impromptu theatricals – we see a bit about why they cross dress, but also their existence as, essentially, fun loving scamps having fun dancing, shopping, going to the theater, and performing. Still, their lived lives seem transgressive for the times – as the arrival of the evil bobby shows. Only then do we move on to the trial – which took place nearly a year after their initial arrest. It’s all done for fun, especially the recitation (and creation) of the lurid medical reports, and we get another song about the “He She Ladies” (their nickname in the press). But the fun Fanny and Stella manage to have has a bit of an air of doom about it all, and, indeed, all three of Stella’s lovers meet unhappy ends. We’re left dangling a bit about how things wound up for our two heroines – it appears they made it back to the stage, but how did things really go? Still, ending a show based on fact with a desire to learn more about the subjects to me indicates narrative success – we’ve made an emotional connection that we want to continue.
With such a plethora of puns, petticoats, and picturesque pretties on stage, this show was well along the way to a successful seduction within the first few minutes – and what can I say: move over Tim Curry, there are two new loves in my life. I’ve gone and bought the book, I’m kicking myself that there’s no song list in the program, and I’ve told several of my friends that Fanny and Stella is a romp with bells on. Here’s hoping they hand out a lyrics sheet as the production continues so we can have a proper knees up round the old Joanna!
(This review is for the opening night performance, which took place Friday, May 15th, 2015. It continues through June 14th.)