Saturday, 16 May 2015

Shadows on the Stage: Public outrage!

Fanny & Stella
dir Steven Dexter • scr Glenn Chandler • music Charles Miller
Above The Stag, Vauxhall • 13.May-14.Jun.15

Based on the real story of Victorian cross-dressers Ernest Boulton and Frederick Park, this is a fiendishly clever musical that mixes the gleefully rude comedy of a 19th century music hall with a striking story of identity and sexuality. Played with hilariously flirtatious energy and surprising underlying pathos by Robert Jeffrey and Marc Gee Finch, Ernest/Stella and Frederick/Fanny are theatre performers whose arrest in 1870 sparked a flood of scandalous headlines about these "he-she ladies". Of course, the crime wasn't dressing as a woman on stage, but parading in the streets and having relationships with men.

Chandler's script cleverly casts all of this as a bawdy theatrical production with six actors playing a variety of roles - including a witty running gag in which Phil Sealey must adapt his performance on the spot to fit whatever character he's playing now. The dialog and songs are packed with puns and innuendo, playing with language in ways that actually make an important point even as they make us laugh. All of this is inventively staged in the small space at Above The Stag with a set that pointedly requires the actors to enter and leave the stage through closets. The intimacy also creates a lot of hilarious interaction with the audience, which adds to the snappy script and riotously silly tone. But what lingers is the power of the story itself, which catches in several moments of raw emotion that bring intense resonance for 21st century audience members.

dir Robert Shaw
scr Mark Ravenhill
Arcola, Dalston

This one-woman show, brilliantly performed by Olivia Poulet, is a lacerating satire about Hollywood. And it's so cleverly written that studio executives might not understand why we're all laughing at it. Poulet plays Leah, who is pitching a project to a top actress, going through the script and punching everything that might appeal to an A-lister. This means that the play works on two levels. First, it draws us into the story in the script, about a workaholic who finds love with a Muslim jihadist, which is unexpected because her husband was killed in the 9/11 attacks. This story is hilariously recounted by Poulet with added stage directions, back-stories and even musical cues in an attempt to bring it to life for the star.

But of course the real point is to explore how Hollywood exploits real-life tragedies to make some cash, while manipulating an audience to think that this is somehow entertaining, warping the very nature of both storytelling and artistry in the process. Ravenhill's script pulls no punches at all; this play goes for the jugular without ever getting preachy about it. And Poulet's Leah shows more than a little desperation, while her reactions make it clear that the unseen actress isn't buying her hard-sell. All of this is done with continual laugh-out-loud punch lines so hilariously sharp that they stop us in our tracks every time we begin to buy into the sales pitch. Genius.

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