The latest offering in Above The Stag’s main auditorium takes us back in time to a Victorian Working Men’s Club in Bermondsey. There we are introduced to two men – William Frederick Park and Ernest Boulton, more commonly known as Fanny and Stella.
An evening of delightful debauchery.
Fanny and Stella The Shocking True Story is a truly remarkable, little-known tale of two Victorian performers who spend most of their time on-stage, and off-stage, wearing women’s clothing. The idea of staging this as a Vaudeville performance with the two title characters re-enacting their recent ordeal is very clever and works a treat. The entire show is full of innuendo and euphemism, but with just enough moments of truth and genuine emotion that the important segments really shone whilst still being thoroughly entertaining.
Tobias Charles is fresh out of drama school and this is his professional debut, playing the role of Fanny, and a very strong debut this is too! In and out of drag he stayed very tongue-in-cheek and was always in performance mode, which is exactly what was needed for this show. Practically all of the cast perform as multiple roles within this play and Tobias/Fanny’s performance in the courtroom as a witness virtually brought the house down.
Playing the other title character is Kieran Parrot, and if there is such a thing as the X Factor then Kieran definitely has it. Stella has a more interesting, and emotional story to tell than Fanny and Kieran truly delivered. He was flirtatious, funny, charming and cutting all at once, yet there was this deep insecurity throughout. When he was in his male clothing his uncertainty of himself seemed stronger still. We were rooting for Stella to truly find happiness throughout the show even though nobody knew what could make her happy, least of all Stella herself. As incredible as these performers were by themselves it was when they were together, singing a Victorian-esque song with colourful language that the theatre became alive. They were a delightful double-act.
It is astonishing, therefore, that Fanny and Stella did not completely steal all of the limelight leaving the rest of the cast forgotten and standing as mere props in their tale, but this was a rare case of having a truly ensemble cast, where absolutely every performer had a moment, and all the actors were just as strong as the others.
Taking to the stage as the poor owner of the Bermondsey Working Men’s Club, shocked at the outrageous displays and language used on his beloved stage was Mark Pearce. It takes a confident actor to be able to get just as many laughs as the two leads-in-dresses but Mark’s performance was a riot! Thrilled, and outraged to be playing a multitude of barmy and grotesque characters Mark’s final exit got a well-deserved round-of-applause from the audience. He also got to make a startling reveal during the show which was very well executed indeed.
Christian Andrews made a wonderful aristocratic fop. His comic timing was impeccable and his earnestness to please Fanny and Stella was sweet to behold. Tom Mann, as Louis Charles Hurt, is the most complex of Stella’s “loves of her life” and portrays his anguish and disappointment very well, whilst keeping within the Vaudeville style of performance. Blair Robertson Fiske gets to show off a variety of accents with his roles but it is his performance as John Safford Fiske which is the most captivating to watch. Being able to appear debonair whilst clearly thinking sordid thoughts – his portrayal of this man was spot on.
It should also be noted that the performers were not just great actors but wonderful singers too. I would also like to give a special mention to Aaron Clingham who was on stage throughout, showing off a splendid thick Victorian beard, at a little piano as Musical Director.
Fanny and Stella was written by Glenn Chandler (Taggart, Kids Play, The Boy Under the Christmas Tree) who has delved into this time period before with his previous works regarding Jack Saul. The idea to stage this story as a Vaudeville re-enactment by Fanny and Stella was inspired, with some very witty one-liners. Together with Charles Miller they have also created some wonderful songs dotted throughout the show. My personal highlights are Sodomy on the Strand and Has anyone seen my Fanny? but the entire repertoire is pure joy.
Steven Dexter’s direction was very well executed. The show is very quick with many actors rushing around playing multiple roles, but not for one second were we, the audience unsure, who was playing who. He also made sure to keep us aware that this was a Victorian Cabaret show. He ensured the cast were constantly ‘performing’ this as a comic tale of Fanny and Stella’s tribulations. The hand gestures and knowing asides to the audience all served as reminders to this play’s true location. Carole Todd’s choreography was just right for the songs.
Once again, the Above the Stag’s design team did a tremendous job in transforming the auditorium into a new location. David Shields (designer) and Andrew Beckett (Production Manager) truly took us back to a Victorian Stage in a working men’s club, complete with show posters, and a hand drawn curtain. Chris Withers (lighting designer) and Nico Menghini (sound designer) made this performance work for those of us not used to Victorian Working Men’s Clubs whilst keeping in style of the time.
All, in all, this a wonderful hit and a story that deserved to be shared. I want to do a lot more research into this amazing pair of performers. In the meantime, do yourselves a favour. Go and be transported to Victorian England for an evening of delightful debauchery.