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Casa Valentina (Southwark Playhouse)

Luke Sheppard directs Harvey Fierstein's play, the second of his shows to open in London this week

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

© Robert Workman

American playwright Harvey Fierstein is having a good week. The musical Kinky Boots, which he wrote the book for, opened to four-star reviews at the Adelphi on Monday. Not content with conquering the West End, he's brought another show about cross dressing, new play Casa Valentina, to the London fringe. It deserves a similarly positive response.

It's summer 1962 and Rita and George are welcoming a select group of cross dressing friends and acquaintances to their mountain retreat in upstate New York. While some of them step out in public as their female alter egos, for the majority of the guests, weekends like this are the only chance they get to express this side of themselves in company. Cross dressing is illegal, you see, so closeting is necessary and privacy, crucial.

Casa Valentina is delightfully camp and high spirited from the off, but Fierstein takes his time revealing what makes these characters tick. Moments of tenderness and truth regularly pierce the hilarity, as we learn how new arrival Jonathan first encountered Miranda, his woman within, or how Theodore found refuge with the gay community when he had nowhere else to express himself as Terry.

Director Luke Sheppard has teased wonderfully subtle performances from his entire cast, inviting us to laugh at the antics of Fierstein's characters, yet never losing sight of their humanity or sympathy for the challenges they encounter. As ‘girls', the cross dressers achieve varying levels of success, but the actors behind them are never less than expert when it comes to navigating the tricky seas of performance within performance, their male personalities allowed to flicker through at crucial moments of the drama.

Ashley Robinson deserves special mention in this regard, entirely invested in Gloria's coquettish demeanour, all pouting lips and piercing blue eyes, until provocation by George/Valentina reveals straight-talking, finger-pointing Michael. Tamsin Carroll also does an excellent job with Rita: she may be the only ‘GG' (‘genuine girl') permitted within these ranks, but that doesn't mean she's not playing a part too.

There's plenty of silliness in Casa Valentina, as you'd expect from such a set up, yet Fierstein's play is serious at its core. Beneath the drunken sing-alongs (brought to brilliant life with help from Harry Blake's score and sound design, and movement direction from Heather Douglass) and joyful makeovers are ideas of identity politics, persecution and the lies we tell ourselves for love.

Casa Valentina runs at Southwark Playhouse until 10 October.