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Posts Tagged ‘Kurt Kansley’

It’s 21 weeks since I attended a cultural event. Normally it would have been between 60 and 80 in that timespan. I queued, socially distanced of course, for a very short while. My temperature was taken and hand gel dispensed. I was led to a table where, after orderly ordering at the bar, my drink was brought to me. I scanned the QR code and registered for track & trace. Then I was led to my seat in the garden with another splash of sanitiser on the way. It was all done in a very professional, unhurried, slick way, so gold stars to the Garden Theatre at the Eagle Vauxhall for this, and for being the first off the mark on the London fringe.

Fanny and Stella were the alter egos for two men – Ernest Boulton & Frederick William Park – in Victorian London, who flouted the law by performing dressed as women, and staying in drag beyond that. Ernest had a ‘sugar daddy’, a peer no less, who treats him and refers to him as his wife, but Ernest also has a boyfriend in Edinburgh and has a dalliance with the American Consul based there. They finally overstepped the mark and after a period on remand in prison were somehow acquitted, perhaps because Frederick’s father was a judge!

The book and lyrics by Glenn Chandler, the creator of Taggart, one of Britain’s longest running police dramas, are witty and cheeky, littered with double entendres and, with Charles Miller’s chirpy score, create a music hall style which suits both the story and the venue. They’ve worked wonders with a few red curtains and potted plants to create a lovely garden theatre and David Shields design and costumes are a delight. MD Aaron Clingham, with his branded Fanny & Stella facemask, plays the score gamely on piano. Steven Dexter’s direction and Nick Winston’s musical staging are fresh and sprightly. Despite the lightness of the treatment, the serious side of the story isn’t lost.

Jed Berry and Kane Verrall are terrific as as Ernest / Stella and Frederic / Fanny, with excellent audience engagement. Kurt Kansley as Lord Arthur Clinton, Alex Lodge as friend Louis Charles Hurt and Joaquin Pedro Valdes as the American Consul provide great support, with Mark Pearce often stealing the show in a number of small roles, all delivered playfully.

I suppose you could think a theatre lover would fall for just about anything after a 21 week famine, but I can honestly say it was great fun, and an absolute tonic.

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Has a musical’s title ever misrepresented its content as much as this? You’d be forgiven for expecting an evening of chirpy minstrels and plinky plonk music, but what you get is an ambitious epic piece of American social history set at the beginning of the 20th century – even more ambitious if you decide to stage it at the tiny Landor! But ambition often pays off, as it does here.

Based on E L Doctorow’s book, Terence McNally, Stephen Flaherty & Lynn Ahrens have linked the stories of a Latvian Jewish immigrant, a black musician who is the subject of  racist attacks (somewhat ironically by Irish Americans!)  and a white upper middle class New England family. We see how a new immigrant can pursue the American dream and end up a successful Hollywood director, the black community’s uphill struggle for respect in this same society and how a liberal white family lives within extraordinary social upheaval. We also get real people in this cocktail – Henry Ford, J P Morgan (if only he knew what his legacy would become), Houdini and Emma Goldman!

The weaving of these stories is seemless and the tiny space has the effect of increasing the intensity and heightening your emotional involvement with these people’s experiences. It’s helped by a very rousing score, with appropriate period ragtime themes running through, which conveys  passion better than any words alone. Though on occasion the story seems a little contrived, you can’t help but get caught up in the events as they unfold.

Robert McWhir has done a terrific job of staging this here, helped by excellent choreography by Matthew Gould and a clever design from Martin Thomas which maximizes the space for the cast of 23 whilst still signposting the many locations the show takes us to (sometimes using the silhouettes our Latvian immigrant is famous for). George Dyer leads a superb five-piece band and I was delighted the Landor bucked the fringe musical amplification trend because it really didn’t need it.

It’s an excellent ensemble, with stand-out performances from Kurt Kansley and Rosalind James as black couple Coalhouse and Sarah at the centre of the story (Kansley also playing a pretty mean piano!). I also very much liked Louisa Lydell’s mother and David McMullen as her passionately political son. Their committment of the whole cast to telling this story sweeps you away.

This show only had a three-month run in the West End in 2003 (in costume but ‘without decor’ if I remember correctly) but it got 8 Olivier nominations and won one for Maria Friedman. Flaherty and Ahrens have other under-rated musicals waiting for a revival (My Favourite Year please!).

We’re still only three-quarters of the way through 2011, but it’s clearly going to be a vintage year for fringe musicals (this is my 18th!). We’ve had another gem here with The Hired Man just last month, Company & Parade at Southwark Playhouse. Road Show at the Menier, Roar of the Greasepaint at the Finborough, The Kissing Dance at Jermyn Street, A Slice of Saturday Night Upstairs at the Gatehouse, Girlfriends in Walthamstow, Salad Days at the Riverside Studios and On the 20th Century, Fings Aint Wot They Used To Be AND Dames at Sea at the Union. Forget the West End, London’s fringe is buzzing with talent. Another gold star to the Landor; up there with the best of them.

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