The Flea, The Yard Theatre, stage review: ‘An epic undertaking’

The cast of The Flea. Photograph: Marc Brenner

As a card-carrying homosexual, Soho resident, and culture writer for the paper you are perusing, The Yard’s most recent play seems to tick my every box.

The Flea circus is in town, exploring a scandal that rocked Victorian London.

Gays, scandal, and central London? Clearly some things never change.

The Profumo and Thorpe affair, the trial of Oscar Wilde, and Cleveland Street – the focus of this play; us Brits do love juicy romps between the haves and the have-nots.

Class and sex have repeatedly fired the indignation of the public. Of course, in the 19th century, there was much more at stake for those at the centre of these queer scandals than just shame: imprisonment, hard labour, and literal exile.

The Cleveland Street cover-up, which happened only 10 years before the infamous disgrace of Oscar Wilde, is one of the clearest examples of the upper class’s ability to hush up a ruckus.

But I waffle – British queer history is a topic close to my heart.

The Flea has it all: postboys moonlighting as gigolos, seedy Fitzrovia setting, and illustrious upper-crust clients.

But how do you stage Victorian London, replete with bent coppers, poshos, and teenage prostitutes, in the Yard’s versatile yet petite space?

Well, Jay Miller (director) and Naomi Kyuck-Cohen (set designer) roll up their ruffled sleeves and refuse to think within the box, quite literally.

Purple-felted walls, two raised semi-circles with walkways between them, and a stage spanning the back are the more expected set pieces.

Then there are the flashes of oddness: floating tables and chairs protruding out of walls like Dali paintings; plinths, miniature furniture and latex tablecloths. This is no stuffy period drama. After all, how could it be?

This out-of-the-box thinking marches unhampered throughout the piece, sometimes uplifting, sometimes tramping.

Lambdog1066’s (amateur couture designer) costumes look like Adam Ant has tried to redesign Vivienne Westwood’s 1974 SEX line, in the dark.

They impress initially, as the five-strong cast bounces on stage, oversized shoulder pads and limbs waggling, horsehair bursting out of pockets, and stylised wigs askew. But this is an almost two-hour long play, not a catwalk, and these stark splashes of colour and texture eventually dizzy us away from the characters in question.

‘Triumph’: Norah Lopez Holden impresses. Photograph: Marc Brenner

Even more ambitiously, the makeup ignores the one rule of any theatre or Halloween costume: glitter never leaves. The postboys have stashes of the stuff under their eyes. Stylish, yes. Practical, no.

Poor Connor Finch, who plays both Henry and the very un-glittery Lord Somerset, has to change a couple of times throughout the piece. All the scrubbing backstage gives his face the hue of a beetroot and the shine of a Greek god. Enhance, don’t overshadow.

But for all the moments that don’t quite work, there are just as many that do.

In the tale of deprivation and inherited privilege, Norah Lopez Holden is Nancy, mother of the lead, postal boy Charlie Swinscow. She also triumphs in the role of Queen Victoria, protecting her wayward family from scandal.

In a feathered hat and whalebone corset, she has a conversation with god on stage, and ultimately delivers a divinely silly and thrilling comic take on a much-maligned monarch.

The acting is strong throughout. Séamus Mclean Ross as both the blustering Bertie, Prince of Wales, and the soft Charlie Swinscome, pivots from blundering royal to vulnerable urchin with such skill I had to check the cast list to see if it was the same person.

Finch, as naive aristocratic Somerset and the sexually confident yet childish Henry Newlove, gives a wonderful performance.

These three hold us in their palms, battling the busy surroundings to astound us again and again.

The play really thrives when James Fritz’s writing is given full space to flourish – something that, sadly, the limited space cannot always provide.

The domestic scenes are by far the best. The Prince of Wales and his mother battling over tea – her on a plinth, him looking up from one of the floating chairs – is a sidesplitting highlight.

On the other hand, any scene that requires much movement literally and metaphorically stubs its toes on the many angles and corners of the overly full set.

The temptation to play for comedy also means that moments of gravity are rather lost. Interrogation scenes and emotional reunions fall under the clatters of unsure laughter from the audience.

Miller’s direction is trying so very hard. Surrealism, comedy, heartbreak, illusion, symbolism, class and sexuality all bubble away in a play that keeps on pulling rabbits out of the hat.

It’s an epic undertaking that is bursting through the seams of The Yard’s theatrical space.

Should we always aim for the clouds? I can’t answer that question, but The Flea will certainly not bore you, and if there’s one thing a gay sex scandal shouldn’t be, it’s boring.

The Flea runs until 2 December at The Yard Theatre.