Southwark Playhouse, London – until 10 October 2015
Harvey Fierstein’s second London opening this week after Kinky Boots is Casa Valentina, which makes its European premier at the Southwark Playhouse and proves a remarkable piece of theatre.
Set in the remote Chevalier D’Eon inn, tucked away in New York’s Catskill Mountains the drama revolves around a group of transvestites, all ostensibly heterosexual married men who visit the resort for weekend retreats where they can live out their feminine personae. The time is the early 60’s and as Fierstein’s brilliantly layered narrative unfolds, the complexities of denial and deceit and repressed sexualities plays out against a McCarthy-esque backdrop of prejudice, where even in the liberal Northern USA, homosexuality is still a crime.
The opening act paints a rich and credible tableau. George (aka Valentina and played by Edward Wolstenholme – keep up) runs the Inn with wife Rita (Tamsin Carroll) – and who as business is flagging, has enlisted the support of Charlotte (or Isadore – Gareth Snook) a Californian transvestite (TV) whose Sorority Magazine promotes the TV cause across the country and whose endorsement of the resort could boost visitors. But Charlotte has her own agenda and as Matthew Rixon’s brilliant Bessie (aka Albert) a man who, for these weekends, becomes a “decorated war hero in housecoat and turban” sagely comments: “politics and prosthetics don’t mix”.
The humour, poignancy and pathos of the piece is perfectly crafted by Fierstein, with Ben Deery’s nervous Jonathan/Miranda proving a finely nuanced definition of gauche as a relatively recently married man, nervously experimenting for the first time amongst fellow TVs. Ashley Robinson’s Michael/Gloria offers another finely sketched portrayal of a handsome young man who having famously deflowered most of the girls in his college year, still found himself yearning for their dresses the morning after. Veteran Bruce Montague as Theodore/Terry is a gem, whose brief appearance smoking a pipe whilst in full female is comedy gold, whilst Robert Morgan’s Judge (or Amy) hairy armed and on the verge of retirement takes the story to tragic depths.
Luke Sheppard has coaxed flawless work from his entire company – and in a production where again, budgetary constraints are tight, the genius of this show can only flow from the human talent on stage. Not only the acting, but also technical wizardry of some of the “girls’”makeovers is remarkable, both in make-up and mannerism.
Snook’s handbagged creation is every inch a woman whose shrewd and ruthless politics channel Margaret Thatcher crossed with Machiavelli. Perfectly poised and sensational without sensationalising, his is a convincingly terrifying performance. Yet it is Tamsin Carroll who breaks us. Her loving wife, desperately clinging to the vestiges of the man she thought she loved – but who ultimately loves Valentina over all else – offers a picture of grief and despair as profound as it is understated. This remarkable cast define Casa Valentina as unmissable theatre. It deserves a West End transfer – but until then, rush to catch it in Southwark.
Runs until 10th October 2015