‘Fanny & Stella’ at The Garden Theatre (The Eagle)

Photo credit: Joseph Thomas. Kane Verrall and Jed Berry pictured as Fanny and Stella

Rating: 4 out of 5.

There was so much excitement and laughter in the air at The Eagle in Vauxhall last night, as we gathered for the 2nd press night of the evening for ‘Fanny & Stella’. This was my first show since lockdown and I was both thrilled and apprehensive about being there. The apprehension didn’t last long. The team looking after us were professional, very clear on the safety rules and they fed me ice cream. So they are basically legends (I can recommend the mint choc chip)

‘Fanny & Stella’ is the premiere show in the Eagle’s new Garden Theatre, which is set up in their refurbished beer garden. A perfect solution to the “no indoor theatre” problem, and while the actors did have to contend with some noisier passing traffic moments, it was a really lovely space in which to watch a show. Plus the cast were clearly very well prepared for the background noise variations as they didn’t seem to phase them, and I very quickly zoned them out too (the traffic that is, not the cast).

Photo credit: Alex Hinson. Joaquin Pedro Valdes & Mark Pearce pictured

This was my first time seeing a production of ‘Fanny & Stella’ a musical by Glenn Chandler (book & lyrics) and Charles Miller (music) and I knew very little about it. In a nutshell it is based on the true story of Ernest Boulton and Frederick William Park, who in 1871 were put on trial for dressing as women and conspiring to commit sodomy. What made their story particularly interesting for the time, is they were acquitted. ‘Fanny & Stella’ imagines these two young men taking to the stage to tell the world about their experiences. This conceit opens up the performance for engagement with the audience, which is embraced with a light-touch throughout the show.

Director Steven Dexter brings a light-hearted energy to this production which is a perfect tonic for these humid and unsettled days. The production moves at a brisk pace, which propels us through the many gags while also giving the slightly more emotional moments room to land. It is in the naivety of Boulton and Park that the heart of the play sits, as they hope that their victory will lead to changes in the law and attitudes towards homosexuality and drag.

Kane Verrall and Jed Berry play our eponymous heroines Fanny and Stella (Park and Boulton) with great verve. Berry’s Ernest Boulton (Stella) sparkles on stage as he embraces his various great loves across the course of the play. His Boulton is self-indulgent, passionate and convincingly irrepressible. You can understand why he was so loved and indulged, despite being chronically unfaithful. Kane Verrall is in fine voice as Frederick Park (Fanny) and had me in stitches during his rendition of “Has anyone seen my Fanny”. The way Verrall flourishes a head scarf every time he is about to take on the role of Boulton’s mother is so joyful. In addition to individually strong performances, there is a great chemistry between Verrall and Berry, which sells the competitive relationship between consummate performers Fanny and Stella.

Photo credit: Alex Hinson. Joaquin Pedro Valdes, Jed Berry & Alex Lodge picture

The rest of the company are very strong. Alex Lodge and Joaquin Pedro Valdes are convincing as two of Boulton’s love interests: Louis Charles Hurt and John Safford Fiske, delivering a strong ‘friends turned rivals’ energy. Kurt Kansley is sympathetically pathetic as Lord Arthur Clinton, who is so easily manipulated by Boulton, to the point of penury. Last, but definitely not least, we have Mark Pearce as Mr Grimes, the proprietor of the venue who has been called in at the last minute to cover a multitude of small parts. Pearce clearly relishes the challenge of jumping from character to character with great comic effect, and I suspect I wasn’t the only audience member to smile in anticipation whenever he appeared on stage (one of the downsides of masks is I can’t be sure).

‘Fanny & Stella’ is a funny, bawdy (‘Sodomy on the strand’ is a fun opening number), light-hearted musical that provides a very welcome distraction from the seriousness of the world. It is frothy, refreshing and much needed. The audience were geared up to have a wonderful night of live entertainment, I think it will be a long time before any of us take a night out at the theatre for granted. Of course this comes with its own challenges, as boisterous audiences can turn ugly if they aren’t enjoying themselves. Fortunately that isn’t something the company of ‘Fanny & Stella’ had to worry about last night, they nailed it.

‘Fanny & Stella’ runs at The Garden Theatre at the Eagle in London (nearest tube Vauxhall) with tickets on sale until 28th August. It isn’t on every night, and many nights are already sold out, so I would book quickly. Tickets are £16 and you can find out more/book here: http://fannyandstellamusical.com/

For those who are feeling nervous about going out. I hear you. I have mainly been shielding and this was my first time on public transport since mid March. However, I felt safe and looked after at the Eagle,and I’m really glad I made the journey. Plus in this heat, sitting outside and watching theatre is a miraculous way to pass an evening.

Photo credit: Alex Hinson. Kurt Kansley pictured

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