Tuesday, October 19

The Pleasure Garden

- September 24, 2021

The way we are taught British history has always been selective. At school we are fed the triumphs, the battles won, the inventions and glories, selective and dare I say it homophobic. Other than Oscar Wilde how many tales of homosexuality do we really know, it’s like it didn’t exist before him, a few tentative mentions perhaps, a king rapidly glossed over.

But the truth surely is that it has always been there, vilified yes, punished for sure, but there, as Lord Alfred Douglas said, “the love that dare not speak its name”.

The Pleasure Garden is a new piece of musical theatre that dares to speak that name and speak it out loud. The premise is a story of love found and love lost, and it is played out as something perfectly normal. Okay, the characters are aware that in the mid eighteenth century homosexuality is illegal, but they portray the love as being a perfectly ordinary thing, not an aberration. Even the arrogant aristo is unapologetic about being, as he puts it, a sod!

This is for me the most important element of this cleverly constructed and realised piece of musical theatre, but it is a piece of theatre so why does it work? It works because the writing is taut, the songs are memorable, the performances are excellent, the direction is precise as is the choreography and it looks lavish. The staging is a work of art, beautifully realised, the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens are brought to life on a seemingly simple set by incredible video projections. I’m not a great fan of projections usually but on this occasion they are so beautifully drawn, cinematic renderings of period engravings that have a three dimensional presence that is matched by beautiful lighting and sound. Above The Stag is a small, but perfectly formed, theatre space but the team of David Shields, set and costumes, Joseph Ed Thomas, lighting, Paul Gavin, sound and George Reeve, video design, prove that size is not important, this is intimate theatre but simultaneously it is expansive.

The cast are equally impressive. Sam Baumal is charmingly open and naive as Tom Restless and has a fine voice. Jay Worley is equally impressive in both voice and character as Ralph Pottinger, a clerk with a daring heart. Rory-Charlie Campbell is every inch the lascivious and predatory older queer aristo Lord Lovelock and Ashleigh Harvey nails the part of his wife, his beard and a woman craving both emotional and physical love. Princess Saura is played with elegant campery by Bea Amora Wong (AKA Benjamin) and Jennie Jacobs is wonderfully reserved as Captain Antrobus with a story line that reflects the true story of Phoebe Hessel. Throughout the hermit is played by Steve Watts and in a whirlwind of costume changes he also undertakes several other roles but his underlying presence is as a voice of reason and of acceptance. Jonathan Harlaw is there as a servant but one who carries the burden of being understudy for all the major male roles as well as being a part of all the ensemble songs and dance numbers.

Carole Todd’s choreography offers something unusual in that the characters, well drilled of course, do not step out of character to execute the steps. The result is excellent, the dance seems appropriate rather than irrelevant and it also has humour which lightens the mood of a story that could be, as is so often the case with the telling of gay histories, dark and grim.

Fenton Gray is a seasoned director and performer and here he too keeps the thread on an even keel, balancing the darkness of a homophobic society with a strong presence of joy and hope and, where appropriate, humour.

And there is humour, writer Glenn Chandler weaves comedy throughout the whole with skill and his lyrics certainly do the same, with distinct hints of G&S and a dash of Sondheim’s clever wordplay and internal rhyme schemes. All of which would be as nothing without Charles Miller’s beautiful score. This is a show with more than a smattering of memorable songs – The Loveliest Blossom On The Bough, Can A Man Help Being A Sod, Finding The Man In Me, What’s Wrong With A Little Detente, It’s Complicated… one seldom leaves the theatre remembering so many tunes. Full marks too for the tightly played score, played by Jade Cuthbert, Becky Hughes and  Pippa Mason and the first class orchestrations from musical director Aaron Clingham.

Above The Stag and this excellent production should be applauded for staging a work of this calibre, presenting a tale of homosexual love and trans issues in a way that is thought provoking, amusing, moving and entertaining – and above all important!

Andrew Kay

Above The Stag

23 September

Rating: ★★★★★

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