There’s no larger theatrical presence looming over London at the moment than Harvey Fierstein. His sassily-scripted Kinky Boots (aided by Cyndi Lauper’s brilliant score and a cast who outdazzle their Broadway counterparts) is wowing the West End. He’s been tapped to freshen up the Funny Girl script for the Sheridan Smith revival. And his play Casa Valentina is enjoying its European premiere at Southwark Playhouse in a scaled-down production that’s big on laughs, heart and drama.
It’s a most unusual story – and maybe too unusual for Broadway, where it only lasted a couple of months. But up close and personal at this off-West End venue the tale of crossdressers gathering at a resort in the Catskills is intriguing and entrancing in equal measure.
Fierstein is often draw to the subject of men in dresses – be it himself as the drag queen protagonist of Torch Song Trilogy, the be-frocked Lola in Kinky Boots, himself again in the revival of La Cage Aux Folles, and himself yet again in the original production of Hairspray. This time he lets others do the dressing up and, gathering in 1962 in their Catskills safe haven, they’re a colourful bunch.
Jonathan aka Miranda (Ben Deery, adorably nervous) is the newbie dipping his toes in the cross-dressing waters. He’s circled by Albert/Bessie (Matt Rixon, who gets all the sharpest lines), a mumsy sort who wants to make him welcome, and Michael/Gloria (Ashley Robinson, fierce and funny), who wants to give him a makeover.
Also in attendance are Theodore/Terry (Bruce Montague), who’s a wonderful elder statesman, and The Judge/Amy (Robert Morgan), whose secrets are about to be revealed. Then there’s Isadore/Charlotte (Gareth Snook, spitting venom), a national crusader for the cause who proves to be the shark in the water, and our host George/Valentina (Edward Wolstenholme), who has a very understanding wife (Tamsin Carroll) and a seemingly open-door policy that’s in danger of becoming anything but that.
Basing his story on true events, Fierstein isn’t just interested in catty one-liners and comic put-downs, although the show sure isn’t short on those. Nor is he simply celebrating the right of men to wear whatever they like and tap into their feminine sides, although it’s a key theme that the cast deliver with panache. He’s also interested in the politics of sexuality, with most of his men in frocks professing to be straight and one of them in particular being a downright homophobe – which really stirs the plot in the show’s dramatic second half.
It’s riveting stuff and, with the cast femme-ing themselves at dressing tables around the auditorium walls, wholly immersive. Props to set designer Justin Nardella and also to director Luke Sheppard, who keeps both the comedy and drama on the boil. And ovations for the entire cast, faultless and fabulous as all of them are. Harvey must be very proud.
Rating: FIVE STARS
Casa Valentina is at the Southwark Playhouse, London, until October 10th.
WORDS: SIMON BUTTON