Saturday, 19 September 2015

Theatre review: Casa Valentina

If I hadn't seen those fucked polar bears in between, this would make a double bill of Harvey Fierstein shows about cocks in frocks, and while Kinky Boots is the big hitter at the moment, for me the real heart is with Casa Valentina. Fierstein's latest non-musical play, it receives its UK premiere at The Large, with Luke Sheppard returning to direct before he revives In the Heights. It's 1962 in a remote part of New York State's Catskills, where married couple George (Edward Wolstenholme) and Rita (Tamsin Carroll) run a weekend resort that sometimes hosts hunting parties. But their main clientele, and the reason they opened the resort in the first place, is very different: George has another identity as Valentina, and the remote location provides a safe environment for him and other transvestites to dress as women in public without fear or judgement.

This weekend only a handful of visitors are due, but they do include two new faces among the regulars: Jonathan (Ben Deery) has never been Miranda in public before, but Charlotte (Gareth Snook) is a special guest, a high-profile transvestite rights campaigner who's recently made great headway, and Valentina wants the others to join her latest project.

All the men are heterosexual and have wives, even if they're not all as understanding about their transvestism as Rita is. They vehemently deny any link between their clothing preference and homosexuality, even sometimes casting suspicion on Bessie (Matthew Rixon) for her tendency to quote Oscar Wilde. But this will become a contentious issue when Charlotte asks them to join "The Sorority," and help make transvestism more visible in the US: With homosexuality still generally viewed with disgust, they have to sign a declaration that they're not gay, and distance themselves from those they are. But Terry (Bruce Montague) has found great solidarity from gay men and doesn't want to betray them, while Gloria (Ashley Robinson) doesn't like how Valentina wants to paint all transvestites in her own image.

Although there's a lot of conflict, Casa Valentina creates a wonderfully warm atmosphere from the start, with the little community quickly establishing their personalities - with Miranda out of her box for the first time and still rough around the edges, there's a great scene as the others fight to be the first to give her makeover. It's a show that put a smile on my face that stayed there pretty much to the end.

But Sheppard's production also effectively introduces the drama, as the surface of tolerance and acceptance is undermined by Valentina and Charlotte - the latter getting a rude awakening when she attempts to blackmail Amy (Robert Morgan,) whose male alter ego is a judge, into supporting her proposal. Justin Nardella's in-the-round set evokes a warm evening in a secluded part of the mountains, Andrew Riley's costumes strike the right balance of glamour that doesn't want to tip over into drag, and it's hard to single any of the actorsout in uniformly strong performances. Delightful but with a dark and moving underside, Casa Valentina is well worth a visit.

Casa Valentina by Harvey Fierstein is booking until the 10th of October at Southwark Playhouse's Large Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes including interval.

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