I discovered this week that my young life has been seriously lacking in Harvey Fierstein. I hadn’t realised it before now, I’d like to think theatre had already shone its light into my mind, but the compassion of his play, Casa Valentina, which premiered on Broadway in 2014 and is now being staged at Southwark Playhouse by director Luke Sheppard, taught me things about human sexuality which I’d never even thought to think. There is no black nor white to sexuality, only varying shades of grey (far more than 50); Casa Valentina is a play about the experiences of a group of heterosexual transvestites in the 1960s, a time when things were, to my mind, so much simpler – or were they?
The play is set in a bungalow in upstate New York, a safe haven where these men gather in secret to frolic freely while dressed as women. Based on the real life Casa Susanna and inspired by a series of found photographs, the honesty of the story being told is the foundation of its charm; throughout the play there’s an elegant duet taking place between light-heartedness and emotional potency. The play is a taut and tender exploration of escapism and self-expression, a lovingly crafted piece of writing. Casa Valentina is a soft and amusing thing at first, familiar, but soon the tension swells until it reaches the explosion of a finale, which leaves the audience bereft and heartbroken.
‘Women have fashion, bubble baths, daytime dramas, bridge clubs and weddings. What do men get? Work, war and oil changes. It’s the curse of the Y chromosome and it’s punishable by death. A male would have to be certifiable not to want to be female at least part-time’. George and his doting wife Rita run Casa Valentina, this hilltop haven, and over the course of the evening seven guests arrive, each one revealing more and more about the difficult context of their lives back home. There’s perhaps an over-reliance on the wit of Oscar Wilde, but that’s forgiveable, as one of the characters comments: ‘Wilde again, beguiled again.’
Tamsin Carroll’s Rita is the beating heart of this production. Her performance is formidable and unflinching, the power of it matched only by Gareth Snook’s as the nefarious Charlotte. Their performances feel effortless, but also capable of wounding, and they are both brilliant in their own ways. Snook is really flexing some very serious acting muscles here, but the whole ensemble is doing strong work and providing plenty of laughs. Designer Justin Nardella has created a cosy 1960s world of lampshades and lino as a backdrop and Sheppard’s direction keeps things pacey and engaging throughout.
It’s a production I would urge you to see, not just for the social commentary of the piece and the compassion of the writing, but for the sheer fun of it too.