Thursday, October 08, 2015

CASA VALENTINA at Southwark Playhouse - Harvey's Hideaway...

Harvey Fierstein, unofficial Mayor of Broadway, has had two long-running successes over the last few years in New York with his books for two big film-based musicals NEWSIES and KINKY BOOTS, but there was no long run for his latest play CASA VALENTINA which ran for two months.  The play has now opened at London's Southwark Playhouse, a venue which seems to have now become the London conduit for Broadway musicals: IN THE HEIGHTS, CARRIE, TITANIC, GRAND HOTEL, DOGFIGHT and the soon-to-come XANADU and GREY GARDENS.

As odd as CASA VALENTINA sounds, it is actually based on a reality.  In the late 1950s a married couple, Tito and Marie Valenti, set up the Chevalier d'Eon holiday resort in the Catskill Mountains in upstate NY which was also called by the more quaint Casa Susana.  Tito was a transvestite and wanted a place where he and his 'sisters' could relax as their feminine personas.  The intriguing thing is that the resort catered exclusively - or as much as could be claimed - for hetrosexual men who were secret transvestites.

Harvey Fierstein's play introduces us to fictionalised versions of the Valentis, George aka Valentina and his wife Rita, and several of their most regular clientele: large and sassy Bessie aka Albert, glamorous Gloria aka Michael, ageing Terry aka Theodore and Amy aka the Judge.  Joining them over a momentous 24 hours are nervous first-timer Jonathan aka Miranda and, much to George's pride, Charlotte aka Isadore, a well-known writer who runs a transvestite publication and who is also an activist for wider acceptance.

Slowly Charlotte is revealed to be the villainess of the play - 'she' knows that George has been interrogated by his Post Office bosses about an intercepted parcel which contained amateur photographs of a gay sex session and also that the Casa is losing money.  The offer of a loan from Charlotte comes with conditions: that the clientele come forward publicly to wider the 'awareness' of transexuals.

The trump card Charlotte holds is she knows that one of the guests was involved in the gay sex photos which forces George into the position of having to betray one of his oldest friends as, tellingly, Charlotte is adamant that in identifying themselves to the world that there can be no homosexuals involved, their cause will be better received if it only involves hetrosexuals.

Fierstein certainly gives us an entertaining play which in the first half lulls you into expecting almost a situation comedy with larger-than-life personalities and waspish, camp dialogue.  However once Charlotte reveals her true colours, the play takes on a more sombre atmosphere and ends with hitherto dependable and understanding Rita slowly realising that her compliance in her husband's secret life has always benefited his needs and that the moment she has secretly been dreading might have arrived - the day that George goes upstairs to change into Valentina and never returns again.

The problem I had was that with scenes like the second act confrontation between the nasty villain and the tragic gay victim, it seemed a very old-fashioned play, almost like a drag-retelling of "The Children's Hour".  There is even an 11 o'clock appearance of the gay man's daughter whose castigation of the set-up leads to Rita's realisation of her doormat status in the marriage.  

Despite the rather formulaic structure there was much to enjoy in Luke Sheppard's in-the-round production with good performances from all the cast: Tamsin Carroll as Rita, Ben Deery as shy first-timer Jonathan/Miranda, Edward Wolstenholme as George/Valentina, Gareth Snook as the hissable villainess Charlotte, Matt Rixon as the larger-than-life Bessie, Ashley Robinson channeling Rhonda Fleming as Gloria, Bruce Montague (yes, from "Butterflies") as the old dear Terry, Robert Morgan as the Judge/Amy and Charlie Hayes as the disdainful daughter.

I also liked the atmospheric lighting by Howard Hudson and the silvery knotty branches of the trees in Justin Nardella's simple set.

the Chevalier d’Eon resort
the Chevalier d’Eon resort
the Chevalier d’Eon resort
the Chevalier d’Eon resort

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