Right at the start of this review I have to admit that I have not read the original 1998 book by Sarah Waters and my familiarity with the material is from the three part 2002 BBC television series. Having nothing to compare the original work to this stage production by Laura Wade means that this review is based only on the merits of the show itself.
Most people coming to this show will I assume be at least aware of the basic story which is set in 1897 with a young and innocent 18 year old Nancy Astley who comes from the sheltered upbringing of her family’s oyster restaurant in Whitstable, Kent. Nancy (like many people at this time) likes going to the local variety theatre and is smitten with Kitty Butler who appears on stage nightly dressed as a man. Nancy has feelings stirring in her for Kitty that she can neither explain or understand and one night gets brave enough to meet Kitty in her dressing room. Things progress as Nancy becomes stage dresser to Kitty then to her surprise part of a double act with her as Nancy King and Kitty Butler. The act goes down so well that with the help of a theatrical agent they move to London to take to the London stage. By this time Nancy and Kitty are lovers and it is against this backdrop of Victorian London that Nancy’s adventures really begin as events take her across the city from high society to the poorest parts. Along the way Nancy is introduced to Lesbian society at its most wealthy and Lesbian only bars and clubs (which are fictional).
How the content of this book/television series was going to transfer to the stage was the big question in my mind before this show, and the answer is amazingly well. The first thing I have to say is that the very sexual nature of the work is handled for the most really subtly. Yes, there are some scenes with very obviously sexual references, language and some props, but they make up only part of the story, and quite honestly they could easily be removed without changing the basic show as I think everyone there knows what is going on without it needing to be obvious. It is all in the end done with no more explicit references than many other stage works that are not about such a sexual subject matter. If you are expecting to go (or deciding not to go) because you think there will be overt nudity and sex on stage then I may as well tell you now that everyone keeps their clothes on on stage…underwear at best is shown. This is a very restrained production overall.
Nancy (played by Sally Messham) has to be the focal point of this production and she is rarely off stage. Nancy’s role here is one with real depth and is almost like a character out of a Dickens novel (to which the social observations of the book have been compared). This role allows Sally to go through a vast range of emotions as she experiences extreme highs and lows on her journey across London and they are all expressed on stage with great understated skill. You actually do start to care for Nancy as this work develops.
Kitty Butler (Laura Rogers) is also a great part for any actress and Laura is great in this role. Together Kitty and Nancy pretty much are the first half of the show as their on stage song and dance routine develops. Having a wonderful period theatre such as The Lyceum to perform on stage in just adds to the authentic feel of the show. The Lyceum itself is pretty much as big a star in this production as any of the actors.
Although there are male roles here, the really strong ones as you can expect are female, and two other important ones are Diana the very wealthy lover who introduces Nancy to her society friends - played with great flair and almost Victorian villainy in parts by Kirsty Besterman, and Florence (Adelle Leonce) a social reformer who Nancy originally meets in the park (while going about some other business) and buys on impulse an ice cream. Adelle gets to do some nice work with this character and plays it well, and it makes an interesting counterbalance to the role of Diana.
There are a lot of surprises in this show, but the biggest one for me is the very ingenious way that the story is told. Giving us Nancy’s story and interacting with the audience at times is a top hatted vaudevillian MC listed in the programme only as “Chairman” . This role is wonderfully played by David Cardy and gives the whole show a very intimate connection to the stage. There is an almost “Cabaret” feel to much of this show (and I mean that with respect as I love that show).
At times, there is an almost surreal aspect to this show as Chairman talks to the audience in the present inviting us to look back as he takes us to the past. A small band at the front of the stage playing throughout the show is also a very nice touch. Adding another surreal element to the show is that much of the music performed is contemporary (1960s to now). Using as a women’s movement song Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Were Made For Walking” is one example that comes to mind.
David Cardy as Chairman is always there in this production as he tells us Nancy’s story and is just as much the star of this show as Nancy. Without his skill to interact with an audience and pull us all into this story, I do not think this production would work anywhere near as well.
This show surprised me and was nothing like I expected. If you are going, expect some obvious sexual references and language in parts done overall with some taste and style.
Review by Tom King