Review – Casa Valentina, Southwark Playhouse

Tuesday 15 September 2015

CMxQTjgW8AAlHAxIt’s Harvey Fierstein week at Whinger’s Towers. Hot on the, err, heels of Kinky Boots comes his new play Casa Valentina.

It didn’t get much of a run on Broadway, which is a shame, because his familiar themes of overcoming prejudice and being true to yourself are explored with much more subtlety and wit (and just as much drag) than his musical, even if the wigs do leave a little to be desired.

It’s 1962. George AKA Valentina (Edward Wolstenholme) and his very accepting wife Rita (Tamsin Carroll excellent in the least showy role) run a Catskills retreat where heterosexual men can leave their wives and their suits behind to cross-dress in privacy for a weekend every year.

A mismatched group of men find common ground and comfort supporting each other in their female alter egos until one of them Charlotte/Isadore (Gareth Snook) wants to make them an official organisation and their relative safety and anonymity is threatened, “Politics and prosthetics don’t mix”. Rather shockingly, among a set stigmatized by society but united by their specialist interest, prejudice still rears it’s untidily bewigged head, as some of them make it clear that “queers” are not welcome.

It’s sensitively and amusingly played out by the ensemble, though they sometimes lose the battle against it being staged in the round. Some of the blocking (depending on where you sit) means that moments in the play are masked. Phil missed a key incident that led to a fight. But worse than that (at this stage in previews) some of the dialogue isn’t projected clearly enough by a couple of the older performers when their backs are turned.

Which is a shame because it’s consistently funny, even when tackling the more serious issues it raises and you don’t want to miss a word. The humour comes out of the situation rather than that of seeing men in ill-fitting frocks and rather unloved wigs. Although that does have its curious charms.

Having said that, Charlotte is the best turned out of the lot, her wig, frock an makeup shows care has been taken. Snook wears it supremely well and is pitch-perfect, all icily-poised charm and detached watchfulness, though Phil was never quite being able to get an image of Edwina Currie out of his head. Shudder.

Phil had fun matching others up with celebrity counterparts. Bessie/Albert managed to be both Pauline Quirke and Matthew Kelly, which is remarkable really as at the time Phil had no idea it was Kelly’s son Matthew Rixon in the role. Robert Morgan’s Amy put Phil’s companion in mind of Tessa Jowell where Phil saw Anne Robinson’s morning-after-sleeping-with-her-face-in-the-pillow face. Ashley Robinson’s Gloria surely sought inspiration from Christina Hendricks’ Mad Men character Joan, while poor Bruce Montague’s (Wendy Craig’s love interest in Butterflies) Terry had more than a touch of Bella Emberg about him/her.

Luke Sheppard‘s production is thoroughly absorbing despite the staging. The era is nicely captured in Justin Nardella’s set with different period lampshades hanging over the stage and dressing tables are lined up behind the seating on opposite sides of the auditorium. If you choose your seat carefully you can watch the actors becoming and un-becoming their female counterparts.

Nervous Johathan’s (Ben Deery, also very good) Miranda – a newbie to cross dressing “in public” – is treated to a makeover by the other girls in Act 1 and introduced to falsies to enhance his/her figure.

If only such care had been taken on other projections; those of the vocal kind.

Thanks to Webcowgirl (who was at the same performance) for flagging up this article about Casa Susanna, the inspirational transvestite guest house in the Catskills.


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