BOYS IN BUSTLES: SWAGS AND SWAGGER IN VICTORIAN LONDON
“The Unnatural History and Petticoat Mystery of Boulton and Park” cries the Victorian poster. “Men in Women’s Clothes – with Decision of the Magistrate”. In 1871, 143 years before Grayson Perry rolled up at the Palace to get a CBE dressed as “mother of the bride” they were a sensation: two lads of 22 and 24 arraigned for their habit of extending their rather ropey theatrical careers into cross-dressing in public places “with intent to commit a felony”.
To be honest, there s little doubt that the ‘felony’ was a part of their lives (cue a rousing opening chorus of “Sodomy On The Strand!” but intriguingly, a quarter-century before the Oscar Wilde conviction, they got off, after a year’s bail and six-day trial. And so did their more malely clad companions and lovers. Frederick, or “Fanny” Park’s father was a longsuffering judge (whose other son did hard labour for feeling up an unwilling policeman). And a combination of legal chicanery, skimmed-over medical evidence and dismissal of love letters as “boyish” meant that the jury spent less than an hour out.
Somehow, the pair slipped through the loophole between official Victorian propriety and the equally Victorian weakness for larky young men and music-hall romps. They were, after all, arrested in the Strand Theatre and appeared next morning in Bow Street Magistrate’s Court still in evening gowns. Irresistible. And a gift of a subject. Glenn Chandler (creator of Taggart on TV) attacks it with relish, writing the play-with-songs as if the pair are telling their story at a working men’s club, brilliantly hosted by Phil Sealey in a superbly curled moustache and sideburns. He is repeatedly forced into doing walk-ons as judge, aged solicitor, Scottish landlady etc. Mark Gee Finch, lanky and beaky, is Fanny / Edward; bouncily pretty Robert Jeffery is Ernie/ Stella. Both are competent singers and dancers as they break into a shuffle or belt out cod musichall numbers like “Has anybody seen my Fanny?”; and both are a delight to look at whether as elegant males or pie-frilled, bustled, oddly dignified laydeez. Alongside them James Robert Moore plays their dissolute protector, Lord Arthur MP and bankrupt; Christopher Bonwell is Louie, who loves Ernie but wishes he’d dress male and not embarrass him; and Alexander Allin the American consul, also in pursuit.
Jeffery and Bonwell are given most opportunity to express the genuine emotional difficulties of the situation before arrest: Stella particularly, pressed to get back in the closet and dress as a man, explodes “I want to be what I want to be!”. But you don’t go to this show in search of Cage-aux Folles sorrow and ambiguity, or the deep seriousness of The Act. Nor, really, even very much indignation. It’s done for larks, and the Above the Stag audience (next show, RENT BOY THE MUSICAL) whooped with glee at the discreet but explicit medical examination in the prison scene. The attempt of the MC to treat evidence as “of a medical nature and unfit to print” is undermined by a reporter howling out its precise nature.
The second act is best, after the arrest; the lads’ relationships being not that interesting earlier on, and the knife-edge peril of their daily excursions not clear until the actual arrest (Sealey springs into action as a detective). The two best songs by Chandler and composer Charles Miller come late too: a lovely alphabet riff on the Writ of Certiorari which saves them, and a rip-roaring praise of the mother’s evidence that her lad (Stella) is theatrical not – um – felonious. And it’s good to see Above the Stag relocated with a swish and a swagger to these arches in Vauxhall, and for this show decked out beautifully by David Shields’ design: it becomes an ornate music-hall in which characters enter and exit through huge wardrobes. Closets, geddit?
Box Office: http://www.abovethestag.com to 14 June