The Flea

Reviewer's Rating

Productions at The Yard have developed a strong reputation for alternative riffs on traditional tales, and this post-modern, punk take on the Cleveland Street Scandal is no exception. It takes both bold imagination and self-confidence to bring the worlds of Queen Victoria and Vivienne Westwood into close proximity, but writer James Fritz and director Jay Miller carry it off with panache and a carefully calibrated balance of free-wheeling comedy and nuanced pathos.

In advance of press night I did wonder whether this story needed retelling given that it has received plenty of coverage from historians and creative writers. This was the scandal that had something of everything radiating outwards from a discreet gay brothel in Cleveland Street where young men recruited from a local Post Office consorted with members of the aristocracy and perhaps even Prince Eddy, son of the Prince of Wales, who himself may have encouraged the police to turn a blind eye. The production makes clear at the outset that their version of events includes a wide spectrum of historical possibility from fact through to total fiction; but the whole offers a chance to interrogate the Monarchy and Establishment and the class system in and outside a specific time frame while also suggesting that the most significant of events can be caused down the chain by the most insignificant – even the bite of the flea the gives the play its title. The second act, in particular, is as fine a sequence of writing and cumulatively powerful scenes as I have witnessed and reviewed this year.

If I start by applauding the set and costumes that is by no means intended as faint praise. Naomi Kuyck-Cohen and Lambdog1066 have done a marvellous job in referencing the period while also adding an edge to it, both lush and satirical. Who will forget the image of Queen Victoria enthroned on top of an Ionic pillar, or the Prince of Wales and Lord Euston dining perched half way up a wall? Plush fabrics are ripped and misaligned with abandon to evoke a gaudy, gauzy topsy-turvy world of immiseration and indulgence with sliding door moments dividing the two.

There are only five actors, all of whom play multiple roles. The cast is mostly young and clearly relishing these richly drawn characterisations which offer them wonderful opportunities to shine. At the heart of it is Sean McLean Ross, who is captivating and compelling at both ends of the social spectrum as Charlie Swinscow, the working-class lad who gets into prostitution to earn extra money to support his mother, and as the Prince of Wales, an astonishingly energetic caricature that paints Bertie as a figure of manic depravity, who has escaped from a painting by Egon Schiele or Otto Dix. Scott Karim gave us highly contrasted representations of a dogged police inspector determined to use the scandal to rehabilitate himself, as well as the mysteriously sleazy brothel keeper, and a cameo appearance as God.

Sonny Poon Tip explored as wide a range whether as an MP seeking to burnish his progressive reputation, or an ambitious if dim police constable and – best of all – the conflicted Lord Euston, a gay man deeply closeted in the heart of the Establishment. Connor Finch had two colourful roles across a broad emotional spectrum – Henry Newlove, swaggering leader of the rent boys, and Lord Arthur Somerset, the man at the heart of the scandal who fatally confuses transactional encounters with love. Norah Lopez Holden holds the play together with two deep characterisations – an imperious Queen Victoria, who owes something of a debt to ‘Queenie’ in ‘Blackadder; and Emily, Charlie’s mother, wrestling between love for her son and making ends meet.

Hackney Wick might seem remote to some as a theatre destination, but this play amply repays the journey, and moreover is set in a newly cool street market milieu that has its own distinctive and currently fashionable vibe. A memorable night out on all counts, and you have to hope that Arts Council England pay some attention!