Nowadays, Vauxhall’s Pleasure Garden is a pretty uninspiring patch of parkland. But this wasn’t always the case. Glenn Chandler’s new musical, The Pleasure Garden, showing at the nearby Above the Stag Theatre, takes us back in time to the 1850s when the garden was in its heyday.
The cast is a strong ensemble, with a good sense of comedy.
The show, directed by Fenton Gray, begins and ends on a contemporary London building site, reminding us that the city is always in a state of renewal and flux. But it would seem that the one thing that stays the same is that those of us who seek a life beyond the heteronormative have always somehow managed to find a place to gather. And Vauxhall, south of the river and within walking distance of the West End, has provided such an environment over the centuries.
Through the reminiscences of a homeless sage, played beautifully by the wistful and amused Steve Watts, we are transported back to the Vauxhall of the 1850s, when England is on the verge of its engagement in The Crimea. A time when men are required to fight and women are required to play supportive roles. All the nuance and complexity of human life suppressed in favour of the war effort. And anything that runs counter to these rigid norms is seen as downright subversive.
The performance style, the singing and the comedic one-liners are reminiscent of Music Hall, and this, along with Carole Todd’s great choreography, the costumes, the manners and the elocution all help to recreate the atmosphere of the time. Most vivid and stunning of all is the use of the video wall scenery created by George Reeve.
Overall, the cast is a strong ensemble, with a good sense of comedy, pathos and the ability to handle the complex but beautiful harmonies in Charles Miller’s score. Accompanied expertly on stage by Aaron Clingham, Jade Cuthbert, Becky Hughes and Pippa Mason.
There are some memorable performances - Rory-Charlie Campbell plays an amusingly amoral and manipulative aristocrat. And Ashleigh Harvey, with a strong voice, great comic timing and emotional engagement shows us what it must have been like for a woman to live in the wake of this behaviour.
Glenn Chandler, always a master of plot, has a few surprises in store for us and we leave the theatre with the comforting knowledge that queerness was not invented in the 1960s - and that the LGBTQ+ community, through creativity, bravery and humour has and will always attempt find a way to exist - even in the shadows. It’s a great night out, but it’s also another stride forward in the reclaiming of our shared queer history - for so long, seen as shameful - and therefore untold.
Ultimately, 1850s Vauxhall proves not to be conducive to queer expressions of any sort - a women goes to war - but her bravery is unrewarded when her gender is discovered, a gay man marries a woman as a ‘cover’, gay love goes unrequited, and one person pays the ultimate price when they are caught committing sodomy in the gardens.
In fact, it is only when we finally return to 21st century Vauxhall that love can be openly and honestly expressed. And we leave the theatre feeling grateful that times have moved on.