Posts Tagged ‘Above the Stag’

Review – Fanny and Stella – Above the Stag

May 18, 2015

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!

Marc Gee Finch tells a tale of infamy!

Marc Gee Finch tells a tale of infamy!

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.)

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Review – Treasure Island: Curse of the Pearl Necklace – Above the Stag Theater

December 5, 2014

It’s odd to be going to shows not as the wide eyed novice, but as the return visitor who has pretty clear ideas about what to expect. I love being surprised; but there’s a lot to be said for choosing a known quantity with an anticipatable payout. In the case of the Above the Stag panto, this means lots of crude jokes, a queen for a dame, and a gay lead character. They’re shows meant for adults (it is in a pub after all) and they go down best with rather a lot of drinks. Sounds like a winning formula, don’t you think?

This year we have a new script (one I hadn’t heard of as a panto piece before), “Treasure Island,” which, with usual subtle humor has the add-on title “Curse of the Pearl Necklace.” Now, this is plenty rude enough, but as it turns out the necklace in question is a major part of the story line and has absolutely no connection to whatever sort of dirty thing you might have thought it meant. It’s a piece of jewelry, it is held together (a bit too tightly in some scenes) with a clasp, it draws misfortune on the wearer – and, unsurprisingly, it draws rude jokes at the end of the show. And in the middle, if I remember correctly, and possibly even the first time it appears on stage. In fact, one might think this item was chosen for its endless ability to feed tasteless humor; even at the end of the show I was still laughing as the jokes had become fresh again (as had my drink).

So, plot! This year we are transported to Cornwall, where Sally Hawkins (Philip Lawrence, on good form) runs a trashy little pub called the Royal Bumboy with her son Jim (Lucas Livesy, bandy legged and believably on the make) and his friend Marina the adorable young lesbian (Briony Rawle, very sunshiny). Into their lives walks baddy Long John Silver (Alex Wood, not quite evil enough for the part) and Prince Daryl of Atlantis (Luke Webber, hunky). Silver wants a map to buried treasure, Daryl wants to get home, and everyone else mostly seems to be looking for love. Will happiness be found for all (except those who have lost certain parts of their anatomy, not their hands, and had them replaced by a hook)? Will The Captain (Andrew Truluck) find his missing daughter Miranda (Ellen Butler) before his other daughter Josephine (also Ellen Butler) can take over her share of her trust fund? Will Merman Ethel become human again? Will the man in the front row that Silver keeps flirting with ever take offense? Will the audience be able to finish their drinks after they’ve been shpritzed with silly string? These are the kind of questions this show raises, and, believe me, it’s definitely not Chekov.

I was actually a bit disappointed with this production despite really liking the characters and enjoying some of the clever settings (the boat was great) and ideas (an island with tide pools filled with booze cracks me up). We had some great characters to work with (Marina was great, our dame Sally was extremely strong, and Ellen butler was hysterical in her dual role), but it didn’t really gel for me. The songs were few and forgettable, but mostly the cast didn’t seem like they’d gelled with each other. I was also really hoping for some slightly more subversive/political humor than we got … was this just too grim of a year to poke fun at the politicians? Still, this was my third panto in a row, and early in the run, so I expect the show will firm up (ho ho ho) as things settle in. If you’re looking for a gay old time, this is the right show to see, and it will only be more charming with a bit of pirates’ punch poured down your throat. Arr, mateys! No kids and just the kind of people you’d want to hang out with in the audience, why not make this where you find your Christmas cheer?

(This review is for the performance that took place on December 3, 2014. It continues through January 10th.)

Review – The Bus – Above the Stag

October 26, 2014

On the face of it, a play about growing up gay in small town America in the early 80s sounds like it might be a bit grim – a little too sincere, a little past its best-by date. But it’s not possible for all of the stories to have been told (Between proved that nicely), and while those of us in the capitol may be blessed by living in an environment where discussing being a gay teenager seems very last decade (is anyone still bothered by this? – yes, very much so outside of big cities), it is a topic that, even more than AIDS, captures the reality of being young and gay. James Lantz had a story he wanted to tell about growing up gay in small-town America; and The Bus, currently playing at the Above the Stag theater, is that story.

On the face of it, The Bus is about the fight Harry DeForge (Matt Ian Kelly), the owner of a small town service station, has with the local, big-box evangelical church over their decision to use his lot as a place to advertise their services for free (by parking their bus there). But it’s far more about his son Ian (William Ross-Fawcett)’s developing relationship with Jordan (Kane John Scott, yum!), which takes place in an environment that’s a soup of hormones, religion, and conformity. There’s a few sub-plots – including Ian’s attempt to reconcile with his dad and the back story of Harry’s split with Ian’s mom (Katharine Jee) … but the compelling moments were all between Ian and Jordan, as they tried to work out how they felt about each other and what these feelings meant for the rest of their lives.

Unfortunately I found the rest of the play too stiff to be believable. Ian Dring was too, too loud as mechanic Sloat; Katharine Jee wasn’t able to sell her religious belief; and Alexandra Vincent just had too many roles to get them all right. And over everything was a layer of corny Southern accents that didn’t really work for me (especially for Kelly, who sounded like he’d grown up in the Bronx). I realize I saw a preview performance and that some softening may have taken place over time; but I don’t think this script was going to be compelling for me. There are new stories to be told and I would have preferred the effort had been put into a show that looked more at what was going on in 2014 rather than spending so much time in a small-town past driven by narrative imperative rather than naturalistic story telling. Ah well.

(This review is for a preview performance that took place on Wednesday, October 22, 2014. It continues through November 22nd. Director’s note: TIRES not TYRES.)

Review – Bathhouse the Musical – Above the Stag Theater

June 26, 2014

As a woman of a certain age (and tastes), it’s probably completely unsurprising that my idea of a brilliant way to start my pre-birthday celebrations was to go to the Above the Stag’s newish home, have several glasses of pink wine and them hope to be deliciously, salaciously, and possibly filthily entertained by a musical … featuring gay men … potentially wearing very little. Yes, people, there is a target audience for Bath House the Musical, and I am it. While I may not share the gender of 95% of the target audience, still, we’re a group of people that know what we want and we’re not shy about going out to get it. SHAKE IT BABY!

In addition, as a theater critic, I was interested in seeing a musical that was, to me, completely new. On the other side, from a sociological perspective, I was actually really curious about what might actually happen in a bathhouse! I’d been to some steam rooms, but I don’t think the frequently gender-segregated Bethnal Green Spa is really about anything other than health and socialization: bathhouses, by contrast, have a serious reputation for being the kind of place where hanky panky happens. And, as a woman, they aren’t exactly the kind of places I can just sneak into and have a poke around. So I went in to Bathhouse with high hopes that I’d be both entertained and educated.

In some ways, the plot was perfect for a newbie like me: sweet young Billy (Ryan Lynch) is going to the bathhouse for the first time, and he doesn’t have the faintest idea what to expect either! So we get a song (“Bathhouse ABCs”) explaining some of the basics of bath house etiquette, all of which was completely new to me (even though I feel confident the bathhouse compere does not go around in a feather boa). We also got an eyefull of the variety of men who were our bathhouse patrons – but instead of casting the show with uniformly young, ripped gents, we had a nice variety: the very ripped and muscular Beckham-like Matthew Harper; extremely boyish Joe Leather (who, despite being young, is the one who is looking for – as the song title says – “Bear”); heavy-set, hairy Tim McArthur; flamboyant Alistair Frederick; and middle-aged, South Asian Royce Ullah, who made the production feel like a real London bathhouse rather than one that was, say, in Miami or Los Angeles. The fellow spend most of the evening wearing just towels, accessorized with wrist-or ankle-bands holding their locker keys … and, while you were perhaps dreaming of (or fearing) full frontal nudity, our brave performers quite modestly only provide the view from behind – although, when the lot of them are in a big clump on the stage with Frederick at the middle, well, not being able to see everything that was implied didn’t make it any less hot. AHEM!

In addition to the cheerful stuff, we hit some other elements during the show, such as the difficulty of trying to navigate your way through internet contact and the fun of being not partnered up for the holidays … although as captured in song, with “Clicking for Dick” and “Christmas at the Baths,” you could see that the authors weren’t wanting to wallow in misery. In fact, the overall effect of the whole show was of cheer and not taking it all too seriously – it’s meant to be a pick-me-up (see what I did there!), and it succeeds at this well. I laughed and leered and giggled and just let myself enjoy the comic air (and handsome performers). As a summer show, you couldn’t ask for a better bit of fun than Bathhouse – and it’s a good thing for the performers because BOY this would be a chilly one to do in December!

(This review is for the opening night performance that took place on Friday, June 20th, 2014. It continues through July 20th. Pictures to follow!)

Review – Orton – a new musical at Above the Stag

April 6, 2014

I hadn’t really heard about Joe Orton before moving to the UK, although I had seen Prick Up Your Ears when it was released (for me, had a surprise ending – I knew that little). It was the incredible production of Entertaining Mr Sloan I saw at Trafalgar Studios (with Imelda Staunton hysterically unforgettable in the negligee scene) that really raised Orton’s profile in my mind; but What the Butler Saw cemented it, because it had the same completely-pushing-the-boundaries humor matched with an incredible tension. I’ve read a bit about him since I saw Sloane but still not much, so I was in a good place to see a musical about the life of Joe Orton without having a lot of preconceived notions. I also now have a much better idea of what England was like during the period he lived. I am also a fan of new theater, especially new musicals, and I thought it was great that the Above the Stag theater was not just hosting its premiere, but involved in producing it. It seemed the perfect venue for this show, and the packed house seemed very excited to be there.

While I can’t be sure of the “truthiness” of Orton‘s narrative, I found the emotional narrative believable and made for compelling theater. (I was sitting outside at the interval excited about going back in.) You sensed the squirreliness and isolation of Halliwell (Andrew Rowney) at the very beginning, his anxiousness to have a sexy young thing like Orton as his partner and his strong discomfort at his position as a social outsider. Meanwhile Orton (Richard Dawes) moved convincingly from “fresh out of Leicester” closet case to picking up guys everywhere he could city boy. I was never entirely sure of what he saw in Halliwell, but throughout, as Orton continued to be more successful with his sex life as well as his art, I felt entirely reassured by his connection to Halliwell, who came off not as a muse but as a kind of co-conspirator in art.

Swinging Sixties London was nicely evoked by the songs and the musical numbers, from I Don’t Think I Know One (about people willing to be amused at the characters in Orton’s plays while claiming not to know people like that – not surprising as they probably were keeping their behavior very private) to the sexual revolution captured with real belly laughs in Sex in the Suburbs. Sex was, appropriately enough, front and center for a lot of the musical number – and man, they were pretty damned hot. Richard Silver and Sean J Hume even managed to make the gay sex scenes witty (in Form an Orderly Line) – I can’t help but think Orton would have approved!

While the songwriting wasn’t Kander and Ebb, still, I think this was one of the best new musicals I’ve seen in a few years – tuneful songs, a cast with pipes (Valerie Cutko showing the pups how it’s done), and an emotional arc that pulled you right in. I felt lucky to have a chance to see it in an intimate house like the Stag – it could easily be moving to bigger venues soon.

(This review is for a permiere performance that took place on Friday, April 4th, 2014. It continues through May 4th.)

Review – Hard Rain – Above the Stag Theater

March 7, 2014

It was hard not to resist a trip to the new home of the Above the Stag theater to see the latest, dare I say it, “straight” piece by Jon Bradfield and Martin Hooper, the authors of the theater’s infamous gay pantos. Their Get Aladdin was the funniest panto of 2012, in part because of its cutting political pot shots. So for them to take on a play with the Stonewall Riots as its topic seemed like a natural next step.

A Hard Rain is set in a gay speakeasy (well, it’s an unlicensed bar) in Greenwich Village in the key year of 1967. Street kids (hippies and otherwise) are all over the place and drug use is common; gay people are not allowed to be served drinks legally so a place like this is their refuge. This particular bar is run by Frank (Nigel Barber), who seems to make a living off of doing things not quite allowed by the law; but with bent cops like Danny (Rhys Jennings) paid to look the other way, it’s all pretty easy to make a profit. Habitues include bartendress Angie (Stephanie Willson), homeless gay teen Jimmy (the doe-eyed James El-Sharawy), and the completely out of control Ruby (frighteningly sexy Michael Edwards), a trans Vietnam Vet who has some really crazy anger management issues. The heat is rising outside and the tempers are rising inside as the basic inequality of the treatment of gay men by the authorities becomes an issue that finally explodes.

Or does it? While this play certainly features a character who is itching to get involved in a fight, the matter of gay rights and equal treatment don’t seem to be much of an issue to Ruby. Jimmy actually seems to get more political over the course of the evening, but, while the casual discrimination that gay, bi, and trans people faced every day at this time (whether from the law, the workplace, the army, or their family) is brought up with many examples, I didn’t really feel that this was affecting the characters in a way that would lead them to riot. Ruby starts the play ready to hit anything that angers her … so getting in on any riot seems like her idea of fun.

Unfortunately, certain elements of structuring and character building – one of which is fixed for a panto and the second of which is unnecessary – seemed to be lacking in this play. The scenes were too episodic and lacked flow; the characters never became three dimensional or really evolved. Anyone of them might have made an interesting focus for a play, but none of them got it. This made me disconnected with the narrative, and I found myself struggling to stay all the way through. The bits of banter between the characters (when they were teasing each other) were certainly lively and enjoyable, but this just wasn’t enough to support the rest of the show.

My feelings aside, there’s no doubt that this play has a lot of people excited to see what they see as “their story” on stage, as the house was packed (I think it was sold out). My takeaway from this is that the Above the Stag should look at doing a “new gay plays” festival, so that all sorts of playwrights could tackle some of these topics, and give new work a chance to flourish. And I’d kind of like to see a play just about Ruby, and how you deal with being gay when you were from the South and in the army. There is a story waiting to be told.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Sunday, March 2nd, 2014. A Hard Rain continues through March 30th.)

Review – Get Aladdin – Above the Stag at the Landor Theater

January 8, 2013

Well, darlings, we are simply at the DREGS of panto season, the very BOTTOM of the barrel, and if you’re scraping it looking for a few last sad laughs I can’t express what a SURPRISE you’re going to have if you manage to get one of the few remaining tickets for Get Aladdin at the Landor Theater, which was sold out SO FAR AHEAD way back in November, darlings, that I couldn’t find a single pair of tickets until all the way in January. Apparently people LOVE the Above the Stag pantos, and God knows I’d been trying to get into one for YEARS, but I’m really not that fabulous, you see, just some hack hag with a blog and theater fetish, and I was NOT their scene.

But there I was the Sunday after New Year’s anyway, keeping company with a VERY manly crowd that couldn’t help but remind me of my glory days back when I was 16 and used to spend the night boogieing away to Yaz and “It’s Raining Men” down at HotBods and Farrah’s in Phoenix, Arizona (yes, we’ve come a long way, baby). But it seemed VERY promising and I had a LOVELY companion with me with whom I was sure I could laugh uproariously at the most inappropriate things (yes, macing your ladybits when you thought you were using FDS was actually pretty funny in my book) and it seemed to me that we were going to have a GOOD evening.

Well, things initially seemed a bit ropey, what with the tawdry stage dressings and our single villain (Abanazar) looking like a milksop if ever there was one – he had the face of a young Rowan Atkinson and was parading around in a cheap pinstriped suit! Boo, hiss, BORING darling. And then the policewoman with her pre-PC Chinese accent – what century was this, anyway?

But then (at about the time the curtains were pulled away), things really started to come together. I mean, Abanazar was a bit comic as a bit of East End rough, but actually, a Chinese factory owner was perfectly situated to be a villain in today’s world; and our PC turned out to be an English lady pretending to be Chinese, thus doing it badly and making it a forgivable character trait rather than an incredibly inappropriate and racist directorial choice.

And oh, the gay! The lovely gay! Not only did we have a very sexy Aladdin, but his true love was the prince of the province of How Hung, whom the villain was also trying to seduce! And Widow Twankey was not JUST a dame but well and truly a Queen of the Drag, who perhaps didn’t have the kind of costumes she might have got with a bigger budget but had 10 times the personality of any of the dames I saw on stage this year. And so much witty banter! And SO much teasing of the audience!

Boys and girls, are we clear, this was a fabulous night out and top notch panto, unbeatable for raucous laughter, terrible puns, smutty innuendo, and … a finale with a hard hitting attack on modern day politics (let’s say it happens in London and ISN’T about female bishops) that was delivered in a 100% comic way that I found represented the best of British humor … laughing as we cry. Blow the bubbles, my cupcakes, and catch the sweeties (perhaps in your laps – ooh, I mean the genie of the lamp), and make sure that before January 13th you remember to Get Aladdin.

(To be clear I had just a wee bit to drink before I wrote this review and the spirit of the evening kind of took me away. Show seen 6 PM Sunday January 6th; it continues through January 13th.)

Mini-review – Blink Twice – Above the Stag

August 2, 2010

While I don’t usually bother with opening nights, the “version two” of last summer’s brilliant Blink! And You Missed It was a show I wanted to catch as soon as it opened. I like musicals more and more as time goes on, and the opportunity to see selected songs from shows that may never be revived could not be passed up. “Blink Twice” (title taken from “It’s a Business,” from the Kander and Ebb show Curtains) delivered everything but the Sondheim, with songs from musicals painful (Martin Guerre, “Live With Somebody You Love”), cultish (Saucy Jack and the Space Vixens’ tunefully brain-damaged “Glitter Boots Saved My Life,” as awful as I remembered, and an earnest song from Elegies for Angels, Punks and Raging Queens, which I’d never heard of before), and almost-nearly-forgotten (Bad Girls). We had a chance to laugh at people’s arrogance (Moby Dick, seriously, how did that make it out of the … er, dock?), wonder at audience’s ignorance (Grand Hotel, seriously, why did it die?), and bust a gut laughing at some truly great songwriters’ brilliance. To this end, I recommend as the highlight of the show “Take It All Off,” from the presumably dead-and-buried Jerry’s Girls. I don’t wanna ruin the fun for you of it hitting you in the head like a lead filled glove, but afterwards I highly recommend you look for it on YouTube and watch the Israeli drag show version.

Overall, this was a good night out, a great value (as ever) at £14, and unmissable if you’re a hardcore musical theater nut. Really, if my biggest complaint was that the women need to all be wearing sheer-to-waist hose, you gotta realize I had to nitpick to find something that didn’t work for me. Go, enjoy, and come back here and tell me what new song is earwormed for you. For me, it’s “two trampolines would make one good brassiere …”

(This review is for a performance that took place on Thursday, July 29, 2010. It continues through August 22nd.)