How difficult was it to be a gay man with a penchant for dressing up in drag in Victorian England? The answers provided by ‘Stella” might surprise you. ★★★★

Stella was born as Ernest Boulton in London in1848. By the time he was twenty he was making frequent forays into the West End dressed as a respectable young woman and taking female acting roles in melodramas. He had another alter ego, touting for business as a glamorous sex worker.

Surprisingly, his mother seemed to approve and his connections were well heeled. His lover was a generous Tory M.P. and aristocrat who bought him a wedding ring and paid the rent on a flat where the two of them retired for sex. Poor Stella/Ernest suffered grave indignities when she was arrested in full drag outside The Royal Strand Theatre where she had attended a show and dared to use the ladies toilet. She was charged with the crime of being a sodomite and tried in a sensational case that hit the front pages of the press.

Remarkably, Stella was acquitted as the jury naively accepted her lawyer’s argument that there was no proof that any actual sex had taken place. Subsequent events are unexpected and defy conventional wisdom about history. Ernest was celebrated rather than reviled and went on tour, dyed his hair blonde and spent the next twenty-five years touring Britain and America as a variety artiste and glamorous drag act.

The play cleverly features intercutting monologues by two versions of Stella/Ernest: the youthful coquettish drag queen getting ready for a night out and the older man in reduced circumstances preparing to be taken to hospital for cancer treatment. Writer/director Neil Bartlett demonstrates his literary pedigree with this haunting and beautiful play. The two actors lyrically express the themes of identity, ageing and loss in a beautifully composed script. The performances are fine too with Richard Cant (previously in ‘My Night With Reg” in 2014) as the older man ably accompanied by Oscar Batterham.

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It’s a claustrophobic piece and is not an easy seventy minutes but the words resonate and feel fresh and current whilst retaining the atmosphere of stifling Victorian England. The play is staged in a perfect and fitting location; Hoxton Hall, a restored East End Victorian music hall. There couldn’t be a more fitting location for Ernest to tread the boards once more.

Bartlett trawled primary sources left behind by Stella but also interviewed people who perform or live in clothes and bodies different from their assigned gender-roles, slipping their words into Stella’s mouth. This works well and blends seamlessly. The play feels like a genuine glimpse of a Victorian phenomenon and is an intriguing treat of a performance.

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Read the interview with Neil Bartlett here:

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About the author: Chris Bridges
Chris is a theatre and book obsessed Midlander who escaped to London. He's usually to be found slumped in a seat in a darkened auditorium.