Fairy lights twinkle in the trees, the evening air clings around us and my “Fanny and Stella Special” lemony G&T is refreshing, sipped beneath my face mask (of course). We can all sense excitement in the air; pure, buzzing, expectant joy. Even the delightfully garish bar we had to walk through to reach the Garden Theatre added an extra thrill. We’re out, we’re back, we’re together and we’re about to experience LIVE THEATRE.
Special credit must instantly be given to the team behind the show for making this happen and keeping us safe! On a night where theatres around the UK were lit up in red to alert us to the ongoing crisis unveiling within our industry, how amazing to find a team working around the guidelines and putting on a show.
“Fanny and Stella” follows the story of Ernest Boulton and Frederick William Park, two young men who, in 1871, were put on trial in London for dressing as women and conspiracy to commit sodomy, a felony at the time. The show, by Glenn Chandler (behind TV series Taggart) and Charles Miller, tells their story.
The show runs at around 80 minutes though I felt this could have easily been condensed into a more dynamic 60. Despite the characters of Fanny and Stella themselves being entertaining to watch there simply isn’t enough of an actual story to allow this show to fly. The jokes are a little dated and distasteful, the humour feeling more low brow adult panto than ground-breaking new fringe musical and a satisfying dramatic arc is somewhat missing. The music is also rather forgettable, there are some cabaret style jaunts but no ear worms to leave us humming.
Despite this I was completely captivated due to the energy, commitment and sheer talent of this fabulous cast of six. Jed Berry, Kurt Kansley, Alex Lodge, Mark Pearce, Joaquin Pedro Valdes and Kane Verrall are no doubt used to far grander stages than this. This does not mean however that they allow their performances to drop below West End standard at any time. With a short rehearsal time, social distancing restrictions (masterfully overcome by director Steven Dexter and choreographer Nick Winston), and an audience of masked, bubbled reviewers you could have forgiven a bit of uncertainty from the cast but they did not miss a beat. There is a brilliant chemistry between them all and it took me almost to the end of the show to realise they were never touching!
Mark Pearce gives us a tour de force in comedy multi-roling as Mr Grimes, mastering an at times awkward script and making it utterly his own. His physicality and accent work were outstanding and left the audience in hysterics.
Kurt Kansley as Lord Arthur Clinton is equally as commanding, filling the small space with his booming tones. You can hear every word from Kane Verrall who demonstrates an impressive voice, hilariously expressive face and comedy chops to match as Frederick Park/Fanny. Verrall is a complete natural and surely has a bright future ahead of him.
The true standout of the evening however is Jed Berry as Ernest Boulton/Stella. Every movement, line, and note which comes from Berry is so well thought out you cannot keep your eyes off him. Having watched Berry start his career in ‘Kinky Boots’ on the West End and move to a more featured ensemble role in ‘The Book of Mormon’ UK Tour it is only too clear he is ready to shine as a leading man (Or lady for that matter!). Moving from beautiful, perfectly made-up and elegant Fanny, into his pixie prince, almost Bowie-esque, Ernest, Berry seems to never break a sweat. He offers a role which could so easily be over played, emotional depth, subtlety and empathy. He’s proved before he can out dance and sing most, now Berry pulls out his acting chops and boy does he shine. I predict great things for this rising star.
Something I must touch on was my disappointment to find an entirely male cast and creative team. It’s so brilliant to see theatre returning despite the odds but it really is inexcusable in 2020 for this to still be happening. I saw no reason at all for the role of ‘Mr Grimes’ (Though expertly played by Pearce) to not have been ‘Mrs Grimes’ especially seeing as most of the roles that he played were actually female. In a show which celebrates femininity and in which a lot of the jokes are played at the female gender’s expense (“Have you seen my fanny?”), it is far from progressive to still find a full male credits list.
A highly enjoyable evening, I left the theatre a little tipsy and with a full heart. Live theatre is such an important art form and this injection of energy and celebration of connection found in a little beer garden in Vauxhall will remind you just what we’re all fighting to regain.
BOOKING: Monday August 3rd – Sunday 23rd August 2020
Doors will open 30 mins before the performance with an “at-table” drinks service
£16.00 + bkng fee
Reviewer: Rita Bryce
Reviewed: 11th August 2020
North West End UK Rating: ★★★★