Stella – born Ernest Boulton – was one half of Victorian cross-dressing duo Fanny and Stella, who were made infamous when they were arrested (although eventually acquitted) for buggery. Boulton acted for a number of years in female and male attire in London and New York, though his career eventually went into decline and he died in reduced circumstances. Neil Bartlett’s play (which he also directs) looks at Stella’s life at the height of his cross-dressing and success, and at the twilight of it, when he is reeling from the suicide of an old lover and facing his own demise.
It’s a sensitive, if not always successful, attempt not only to capture Stella’s life but the impulses behind it. The performances (Richard Cant as the older Boulton and Oscar Batterham as the younger) are poignant, deftly portraying both the vulnerability and bravado of the character, and the dialogue is peppered with flashes of wit and insight. But the piece is undermined by a muddied script and lack of clarity – my companion, who had not read the programme notes, was baffled as to Cant’s identity and his relationship to his younger self, and it’s an easy mistake to make, as the play seems to assume a familiarity with the backstory that not everyone will have.
The production is overly static and, even at a short running time, lacks momentum – despite the fact that both characters are constantly checking a clock, waiting for someone to arrive, there is little impetus driving the story forward. Designer Rae Smith’s staging is striking – both men sitting on a raised platform against the cavernous, unadorned stage area of the Theatre Royal, a sublimely effective use of the theatre in a piece that constantly references stagecraft. Christopher Stutt’s sound design, however, is a little heavy handed – the performances are regularly punctuated by bursts of loud shattering glass, which starts to wear thin quite quickly.
It’s also enormously problematic having a silent black character who is merely an attendant with no lines (Alan Carr). It’s such an unnecessary role that it has to be a deliberate choice (he has little to do but gaze up at the performers from his position below their platform and occasionally hand them props), but it is a misjudged one that tarnishes the entire production. Generously, you could assume it was a commentary on intersectionality – that being part of one under-represented group doesn’t prevent you from ignoring or even colluding in the voicelessness of another – but it badly jars.
The story of Stella is a fascinating one, but Bartlett’s play, while occasionally evocative, barely scratches the surface of it. Ultimately this feels like a wasted opportunity.
Stella is on until 28th May 2016 as part of the Brighton Festival. Click here for more information.