Casa Valentina*** (Southwark Playhouse)

Posted: September 20, 2015 in Theatre

casaAs the American writer Harvey Fierstein is known primarily for gay-themed plays and musicals, the world of heterosexual transvestites would seem, at first glance, to be something of a departure for him. However, relations between the gay and transvestite communities, their common interests, what unites them and, most critically, what divides them lie at the heart of this new play, first performed on Broadway last year. The time is 1962 and the hits of the time (the Four Seasons’ Walk Like a Man brings a touch of irony) play repeatedly. The place is a resort hotel in the Catskills Mountains in upper New York state, a weekend refuge for cross-dressing men who want to leave behind their wives and families to relax and release their inner selves. Rita (Tamsin Carroll) runs the hotel along with her husband George (Edward Wolstenholme), who arrives home from a business meeting, discards his smart suit and transforms into Valentina. Justin Nardella’s set design presents the whole of the Large space here, configured in-the-round, as the common area of a leisure resort, with dressing tables, adorned by plentiful makeup and wig stands, behind the audience on all sides. Dozens of multi-coloured light shades hang from above, but, once the play has begun, most of the decoration is out of view and the performance takes place on a not very exotic, sparsely-furnished parquet floor. The narrative has two strands, the first of which is frivolous – the arrival of nervous newcomer Jonathan/Miranda (Ben Deery), to be fussed over by the motherly Albert/Bessie (Matthew Rixon) and receive a makeover from the entire group. Fierstein feeds the characters with lines that could have come from Coward or Wilde had they still been around, but we know that he is a writer who can be trusted not to demean or extract cheap laughs from the lifestyles of minorities. Somewhere in the middle of Act I, the frivolity ends and the second strand emerges, leading to a wide-ranging debate on the position of transvestites in 60s society, still relevant in different ways today. Should they go public or stay private? Should they unite with the gay community to fight repression of minorities or would their image be improved by complete dissociation therefrom? The advocacy of a campaigner for transvestite rights Isadore/Charlotte, revealed to be a homophobic bigot, gives the play its most disturbing moments; there can be little doubt that Fierstein despises this character, a fact that is doubly underlined in Luke Sheppard’s production by the ferocity of Gareth Snook’s performance, dripping with venom. There is greater sympathy shown for “The Judge”/Amy (Robert Morgan), a septuagenarian still tormented by his double life and finding the lines between transvestism and homosexuality less distinct than the others pretend. The writer presents all sides of all of the arguments with clarity, seeming so intent on doing so that his play becomes overlong and sacrifices some of its sharpness. Once the play has become political, it struggles to return convincingly to the human comedy/drama with which it began and it loses its way in the final stages. Nonetheless, Fierstein’s writing is engaging and stimulating and the acting is uniformly impeccable.

Performance date: 19 September 2015

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