Sunday, 29 May 2011

CLEVELAND STREET at Above the Stag

     The night after I saw the wonderful London Road, I saw another musical based on a nororious scandal with an address as the title. Actually, the title should be 19 Cleveland Street, the address of the notorious male brothel that caused a scandal in the 1880s shortly after more stringent anti-homosexual laws had been passed by Parliament. Former rent boy Charles Hammond knew that male clientele wanted young working-class boys ("rough trade") for their sexual escapades. Hammond found a ready supply through boys who delivered telegrams for the Post Office and wanted the ready cash provided by prostitution. The clientele at 19 Cleveland Street included some highly placed people -- politicians and people highly placed in Queen Victoria's court, perhaps even the queen's grandson, Prince Eddy. In 1889, the police discovered the activities at this respectable looking house and a public scandal ensued. While none of the important clients of the establishment were punished (some fled to France, some were protected by their position), some of the boys were arrested and given short prison sentences. Hammond fled to France.
     This scandal may seem an odd subject for a musical, but for the most part, CLEVELAND STREET manages to be historically accurate and entertaining. The facts are all there and some of the musical numbers are very clever Glenn Chandler, creator of the long-running Scottish detective series TAGGARTand author of other gay plays, has crafted a clever, bawdy script and witty lyrics. For the most part, composer Matt Devereaux has kept the music appropriate to the period. Gilbert and Sullivan patter songs alternates with songs in the style of the English Musica Hall. The songs tend to be commentaries rather than character-driven numbers, much like the songs in some Kander and Ebb musicals. The best of them is "Climbing the Ladder, Passing the Buck" in which performers present a vaudeville version of the passing of the political hot potato the scandal had become from one government office to another. Some numbers, particularly "Poses Plastique," slow down the show's momentum but this is a good musical that with some tweaking could be more than that.     
     Tim McArthur has again worked miracles with the stage of the Above the Stag Theatre (wide but about ten feet deep). The simple set had the stage split between the parlor of the brothel and a small music hall stage. Strongest in the cast was Josh Boyd-Rochford as brother-keeper Charles Hammond and other miscellaneous characters including the police detective who investigates the doings on Cleveland Street Boyd-Rochford has real stage presence and versatility. Joe Shefer plays all the high born customers without much variety. The three telegraph boys are charming, perhaps too charming. They're sweet and vulnerable -- I doubt that was the case with the boys who worked at 19 Cleveland Street. These boys were far too refined. the singing is variable -- ensembles are stronger than solos or duets. The accompaniment was piano, flute and cello -- perfect for the period and the faux elegance of this notorious brothel.
     The enterprise could have more edge, more danger. It's all played as a lark. This is to some extent the fault of the show, but the director also could have given the show a harder edge.
CLEVELAND STREET. Above the Stag Theatre. May 28, 2011

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