Cleveland Street: The Musical, a new show written by Glenn Chandler (of Taggart fame) with music by Matt Devereaux, is a curate’s egg of a production. At its best, during the first act, it’s an enjoyable pastiche of music hall traditions that gives a postmodern wink to the audience without coming across as smug or overly self-conscious. However, the show runs into problems when Chandler, as if chafing against the constraints of the light-hearted style he’s adopted, starts making heavy-handed points about social hypocrisy, media manipulation and the corruption of the English legal system. The result is an uneven and overlong second half that lacks the pace and focus of the first.
The musical tells the true story of a male brothel at 19 Cleveland Street that achieved notoriety when a boast by one of its prostitutes about a client, allegedly Queen Victoria’s grandson, the Prince of Wales, led to an investigation that implicated some of the most powerful members of London society. The brothel was shut down, its proprietors, Charles Hammond and his wife Caroline Cotte, escaped to France and the Earl of Euston successfully sued the North London Press for libel after the paper published a story naming him as a client.
As directed by Tim McArthur, the occupants of 19 Cleveland Street are an alternative family in the Dickensian mould. Charles (Josh Boyd-Rochford) and Caroline (Fanni Compton) as “the two Madams” are the squabbling parents of a gaggle of unruly boys who giggle and tell each other stories before going off to have sex with a revolving door of aristocrats known pseudonymously as Mr White, Black, Brown and Green. The cast’s occasional foray into the audience for a chat or a flirt reinforces this cosy atmosphere of thrown-together domesticity.
Boyd-Rochford and Compton are perhaps the strongest performers, both in terms of acting and singing, sketching their characters broadly enough to allow room for pathos when their world collapses around them. By turns lascivious, shrewd and sincere, Boyd-Rochford imbues Charles with a sly charisma that keeps his wife by his side and attracts the petulantly beautiful Henry Newlove, played with spiky sensuality by Ashley Martin. As Thomas Swinscow, whose loose tongue leads to calamity, Michael Anderson is endearingly gawky, struggling not to sound like the messenger boy that he is when trussed up like a Roman emperor to satisfy a client. Unfortunately, as Ernest Thickbroom, the third of the 19 Cleveland Street new boys, Adam Elliott’s gurning performance soon grates.
The tunes are, for the most part, bright and breezy but not hugely memorable. ‘Climbing the ladder, passing the buck’, performed by the characters as part of a show within the show, is a clever song that outstays its welcome; only ‘I was there!’, sung by embittered older prostitute (and the show’s narrator), John Saul (Paul Branagan), makes an impact – whipping along with contagious, bawdy energy in Act One and, as a solo reprise at the end, jagged-edged and loaded with poignancy and regret.
These snippets of bleakness, including Swinscow’s unpleasant initiation into life as a prostitute with the creepy Lord Somerset (played with wolfish appetite by Joe Shefer), are part of the problem with Cleveland Street. Serious themes are invoked but they’re never developed; quickly being superseded by jokes about syphilis, high kicks and the occasional flash of cock (which was met with audible appreciation, on the night I saw it, by a gentleman in the back row). The shifts are too abrupt, resulting in a script that increasingly comes across as fractured rather than textured.
Ultimately, then, in spite of McArthur’s strong and cohesive direction, the effectively lavish staging (velvet drapes and gilded birdcages abound) and some full-blooded performances, Cleveland Street’s indecision as to what it wants to be – camp musical? Satire with songs? – results in a whole that’s sometimes less satisfying than its parts.