A man on a chair is sitting waiting (a long wait on press night as the audience assembles). In his drab grey suit, he looks like a bank clerk, which he once was, on his lap a brief case, his right hand bandaged.
When the lights have gone down, a black clad, bowler-hatted figure slowly mounts the steps to the stage accompanied by an ominous thudding and flashes of light.
The seated man is Ernest Boulton, a cross-dresser who called herself Stella with a theatrical career behind her among other things. The dark presence, a convenient attendant like a black-suited kabuki prop man, seems something much more portentous, like the Dark Angel. That banging, which returns at key moments as a knocking, perhaps the knock he is waiting for, resonates with meaning like the knock of the stone statue in Don Giovanni. The staging is simple, the action minimal but director Neil Bartlett knows just how to tighten theatrical tension.
Bartlett discovered Stella over 30 years ago when researching the gay world of Oscar Wilde. In the Public Records Office, he unearthed trial records of her arrest with Frederick Park, her partner in their female impersonator double act (joint subject of Glenn Chandler and Charles Miller’s 2015 musical Stella & Fanny) along with letters seized by the police and wrote of Stella in his book Who Was that Man?.
This play isn’t a dramatic biography but rather a meditation on identity and expectation. Bartlett has described it as “a fella sitting on a chair talking to the audience,” but it is actually that fella twice, for the 56-year old Stella, in Boulton persona, dosing himself with laudanum while waiting for the cab that will take her to hospital, is joined by her 21-year-old self, waiting for her lover, Tory MP Lord Arthur Pelham-Clinton, with whom she lived at one time as Lady Stella Clinton.
That bandaged hand has been injured smashing a mirror reflecting the aging Ernest Boulton, forced into male clothes to get into the hospital, they don’t show him the desirable beauty she once was, he tries to remember when someone last touched him, attempting to make sense of his life as facets of it sparkle like the shards of that shattered mirror. Meanwhile young Stella, a soft-skinned, bright-eyed, newly blonde butterfly with a life full of promise, talks of the life she is leading with its lovers and punters.
Richard Cant and Oscar Batterham make an acceptable pairing as the same person at two different ages. Batterham’s Young Stella, full of confidence in her attractiveness and getting a way with the way she behaves. David Carr, as the Attendant, fades in and or of awareness, adding weight to each moment.
It is Cant’s Ernest/Stella, his hang-dog, melancholic face so expressive, every etiolated gesture meaningful, that tears at the heart. This is a truly remarkable poignant performance.
Do we know who we are when we wake up each morning: Stella or Ernest, Lady Clinton or rent boy? Bartlett is writing about things inexpressible, searching for a real identity in a world without understanding. It is partly a play about daring to be who you are but in the finality Stella has to end it as Ernest.
Reviewer: Howard Loxton