Review: Fanny and Stella (The Garden Theatre)
If you'd been taking bets on the first performance to emerge on the London fringe after its closure thanks to Covid-19, then a musical about two Victorian cross-dressers would have come a long way down the list. But these are strange times, and this is a strange show.
Its considerable pluses are its stars, Jed Berry and Kane Verrall, who fill the open-air setting of the garden at The Eagle in South London with considerable amounts of charisma and attack. They play, respectively, Ernest Boulton and Frederick William Park, two men who transformed themselves into the glamorous Stella and her 'sister' Fanny for amateur theatricals – and then continued their performance as women off-stage, walking around London, shopping, flirting and having a considerable amount of fun.
In 1871, they were put on trial for dressing up as women and conspiracy to commit sodomy, a felony at the time. Astonishingly, they got off. This show, by Glenn Chandler (who created the TV series Taggart) and Charles Miller, tells the story of these courageous "he/she ladies".
It is an extraordinary piece of history, with some obvious resonance for contemporary times, and Berry and Verrall play it with panache. The problem is the show itself has none of the flair of their performances. It is amiable enough, and well-structured, but its jokes are obvious and plodding. The fact that it opens with a lyric about Sodomy on the Strand and a gag about an "anus horribilis" tells you all you need to know about the level of the writing and the broad comedy of the humour.
The trial scene is fun, and a song called "Your Mother" has an extraordinary amount of razzle dazzle given that we are sitting in a pub garden in broad daylight, socially distanced from the tiny stage. The music hall tang and swing of a song called (inevitably) "Has Anyone Seen My Fanny?" is also a pleasure. I warmed to all the cast, which also includes Mark Pearce (taking on many parts) and Alex Lodge as an earnest childhood friend of Boulton's who cannot accept his desire to dress up as a woman.
Steven Dexter directs with an efficient flair that makes full use of the limited space and David Shields' costume design is terrific. But it's hard to escape the sense that this is a show powered on good-will and energy rather than on the sophistication and style of its story telling.