The stars are for gallantry – this is the first live show, a musical no less, to open on the London Fringe and all concerned are to be congratulated for not just putting on a show, given the circumstances, but for doing it very well indeed.
Fanny and Stella is a jolly little musical about two scandalous young Victorian men, Ernest Boulton and Frederick Park who performed at the Strand Theatre in London dressed as women and plied a successful off stage life obliging numerous Victorian gentlemen until the police arrested them and, apparently, their leading paramours. Fanny and Stella were accused of homosexual crimes which should have resulted in a fate worse than death but they were well connected, Fanny’s father was a judge, Stella’s mother wept in the witness box about her darling boy’s love of theatricals and the pair were duly acquitted after which they went on tour with their own show Velma and Roxie style so to speak.
There is a great story there about the sexual hypocrisy of Victorian England, especially among the ruling classes, where anything went – there is an anachronistic Cole Porter joke atone point – but Chandler’s book is muddle while Miller harmless little tunes are simply that. It is all rather toothless when it could have been devastating about Victorian sexual hypocrisy, even if there is a certain frisson from the jollier songs like Sodomy on the Strand and Where has my Fanny Gone? There is no point in pretending the material is better than it is.
But that is no to say this new production is not worth seeing, and the cast led by the strapping Kane Verral as Fanny and the extremely pretty Jed Berry as Stella play it to the hilt, with Verral going for drag queen and Berry doing greedy love object – money is for spending even when your spender doesn’t have it – with relish. Kurt Kansby is impresive as the MP who funds them both it seems, Alex Lodge as the Scottish post office official who wants his childhood chum Ernest to grow a moustache and wear trousers so they can be together has a fin voice, Joaquin Valdes lusts after Stella with style as an American in Edinburgh and Mark Pearce has a whale of a time being everybody else. There is also a terrific number with chairs to enjoy. But there is no point in pretending it is what it is not.
Audiences have to wear masks, social distancing is observed, and tickets are selling fast. Performance times vary so check with the theatre website and go discover just what apparently happened when they all went down the Strand – fun and games. Out it this way – 2** for the show, 4**** for the cast and production, and 4**** for doing it at all.
Frederick William Park/Fanny: Kane Verral.
Ernest Boulton/Stella: Jed Berry.
Lord Arthur Clinton: Kurt Kansby.
Louis Charles Hurt: Alex Lodge.
Mr Grimes: Mark Pearce.
John Safford Fiske: Joaquin Pedro Valdes.
Director: Steven Dexter.
Musical Staging: Nick Winston.
Musical Director: Aaron Clingham.
Designer: David Shields.
Photograph: Joseph Thomas.