Fanny & Stella: The Shocking True Story

Glenn Chandler with music by Charles Miller
Above the Stag Theatre

The real Fanny and Stella (Ernest Boulton and Frederick Park)

In 1871, in a then notorious court case, two young middle class men stood trial on a charge of “conspiring and inciting persons to commit an unnatural offence”, a polite way of saying buggery.

They were Thomas Ernest Boulton and Frederick William Park: Ernie Boulton had been a stockbroker's clerk and worked in a bank and his companion was a solicitor’s clerk and the son of a judge. They had been arrested when leaving the Strand Theatre, which they had attended dressed as women. In their cross-dressed personas, they were known as Fanny and Stella and this is their story.

Both were very theatrical, aspiring "actresses" who had appeared on tour together and as amateurs. Dramatist Chandler has them present their own version of events in the form of a performance at the Bermondsey Working Men’s Club whose Chairman Mr Grimes (Phil Sealey) greets all the audience on entry.

Designer David Shields makes this an elegant environment with panelled walls, partly tiled, framing a small stage, flanked by two ornate, bronze-looking wardrobes that could be full of frocks but open to provide entrances or supply props assisting the smart pace of director Steven Dexter’s amusing production.

This isn’t a full-blown musical but it features songs in a lively music hall style and some nifty choreography by Carole Todd. The spirited first number sets the tone with its reiterated reference to “Sodomy on the Strand”.

Of course, there is a serious side to this history. You could see this pair as early gay liberationists. They certainly set out to do their own thing irrespective of society’s sanction. Ernie, who was the prettier, had an aristocratic admirer with whom he lived in London. Lord Arthur Clinton even had visiting cards printed for Lady Stella Clinton making him his wife.

James Robert Moore makes Lord Arthur a besotted nincompoop; poor man, Stella’s piling-up dress bills are making him bankrupt. You can’t help but feel sorry for him for Stella’s heart seems to be with handsome Louis Hart, a straight-acting surveyor charmingly played by Christopher Bonwell, taking up a post in Edinburgh where Ernie joins him. Up north, he gains another admirer in US Consul Robert Fiske (Alexander Allin).

Robert Jeffery makes Stella beautifully bitchy, not least to Fanny, whom Marc Gee Finch makes almost equally outrageous if a little more demure. With this camp couple as its central characters, the show becomes a light-hearted giggle not to be taken too seriously, though it wouldn’t be quite so jolly if its outcome were different.

Chairman Grimes is a bit upset at all this carry on in his establishment but when pressed into service to play all the auxiliary characters in the story he seems to enjoy it and actor Sealey has a ball, especially as a law officer, a persistent Yorkshire would-be client and an hilarious Edinburgh landlady, recreating each character as their description is amplified to the great delight of the audience.

Fanny and Stella: the Shocking True Story reclaims a little piece of gay history, adds a touch of romance and a dash of political awareness but its main ingredient is fun and it makes an indulgent crowd pleaser stylishly presented—and I don’t just mean the frocks.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton