Paul Taylor Mills Ltd
Harvey Fierstein plays are like London buses these days: you wait ages for one and then two come along at once.
Just 24 hours after the West En première of Kinky Boots at the Adelphi Theatre, the focus moved south of the river to the deliberately rough and ready Southwark Playhouse for Casa Valentina’s UK première.
Fellas in frocks dominate both productions, and in-fact all of Fierstein’s work, but that’s where the similarities between his latest two plays end. Directed by Luke Sheppard, Casa Valentina is set in upstate New York in the early 1960s at a time when many people were clearly uncomfortable and perhaps unaware that there were straight men who enjoyed dressing in women’s clothing.
Rita and George are a positively forward-thinking couple played by Tamsin Carroll and Edward Wolstenholme who are modern and very open-minded. Their home-come-B&B provides a sort of headquarters and sanctuary for their male friends to retreat to.
Once within the bosom of this secluded little colony, the men are free to powder their noses and prance around in high heels, flowery dresses and badly-fitted wigs to their hearts' content. George is no exception because he too likes to dress up. On the face of it, a devoted Rita fully supports him and even offers much-needed beauty tips.
But not all is as it seems and times are changing. There’s a certain number within the party of guests who feel it’s time to step out of the shadows and live a more public and open existence. For some this is a matter of principle and equality, whilst for others ‘coming out’ could turn their lives upside down and this is not something a handful of them is prepared to risk.
There are enough one-liners and wit amongst the serious messages of acceptance, friendships and honesty to maintain the highs and lows as the party considers life beyond the walls of the Casa Valentina.
Charlotte is the undisputed matriarch of the movement. Played eloquently by Gareth Snook, he/she is adamant the group must move forward and improve its profile. Shockingly for some there’s a price for this possibly of so called freedom: gay people must not be allowed to join the group. It’s thought by accepting homosexuals, the group risks losing its ‘acceptability factor’ and, potentially more important than that, money in the future.
Casa Valentina is a grown-up look into a largely unexplored world of intrigue that has a certain degree of glamour and class. It respectfully addresses the issues that for many still exist today and treats the genuine fear and challenges of the men in a non-patronising way.
The stage is dimly lit with a plethora of retro shades and there are dressing tables scattered around the edge of the theatre for the men to transform themselves, which provides an added element of interest.
Casa Valentina is yet another interesting example of a very decent Fierstein-penned production.
Reviewer: Thomas Magill