Above the Stag Theatre, London – until 17 October 2021
The biggest pleasure in Glenn Chandler and Charles Miller’s new musical is the beautiful set. Created by designer David Shields in Fenton Gray’s premiere production, it morphs across seasons and geographies thanks to George Reeve’s vibrant and original video backdrop. Indeed, everything about The Pleasure Garden is a feast for the eye. The costumes are glorious and the stage is full of colour and movement.
Set during the Crimean War, the start and endpoint of the action is the legendary Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens. At its height in the 19th century, people flocked there in their thousands to see fire-eaters and fireworks, music and magic, art and architecture, royalty and rogues.
Above the Stag Theatre sits alongside the Gardens’ remains and the story is one that speaks to the lively LGBTQIA+ community it serves. Nobody in The Pleasure Garden is quite what they seem. Yet they’re all exactly what they seem: gay men forced to marry by social constrictions, women disguised as men to join the Army, a gender-fluid doctor who saves lives by day and slips into his Princess alter-ego at night, a sexually fluid gardener available to the most ardent bidder… So far so good.
But instead of developing these tropes, they are regurgitated panto style in a story that touches on history but fails to evoke it. And too many songs and double-entendres impede the action.
That isn’t to say The Pleasure Garden lacks beautiful moments. In the second half, two secondary characters share their stories in a funny and very moving song, It’s Complicated.
And the fabulously supportive audience at Above the Stag cheered loudly at the end, clearly enjoying their trip back in time.