Chelmsford Theatre Workshop
at the Old Court
Harvey Fierstein. Kinky Boots, Cage aux Folles, and, surely his finest hour, Torch Song Trilogy, memorably done on this stage back in 2001.
Casa Valentina is a newer piece, though it does revisit those favourite Fierstein themes. Based on the legendary Casa Susanna, it takes us back to the days – the early Sixties – when cross-dressing was still a crime in many US states, and a weekend retreat resort in the Catskills was a dream come true for these “self-made women”. The dream turns to nightmare after the interval, when politics takes over from prosthetics, and callow newbie “Miranda” [an excellent Jesse James Lamb] flees back to the closet.
Rebecca Segeth's production has an evocative period set, on two levels, carefully lit [Jack Hathaway]. And a very strong cast, beautifully turned out in their femme frocks.
Colin Smith is “Valentina”, facing the uncertain future of his guest-house, supported by his wife, the only GG [genuine girl] in residence. This play is the story of their marriage, too, and the final moments are almost unbearably poignant: George sheds his masculine skin to the Everlys' Let It Be Me, as Rita [touchingly played by Rachel Curren] stands confused and alone on the stage above him.
There is much fun and silliness too – the Wildean contributions of the outrageous “Bessie” [Dave Hawkes], and the Sugar Time routine, where the faces of the wallflowers tell their own story: there's Terry Cramphorn's veteran Theodore, who once found refuge in gay bars, listening to Ian Willingham's Michael, who invited the new boy, and whose put-down of “Charlotte” is one of several powerful monologues in the piece - “Bessie”'s uncharacteristically melancholy musings on his marriage are another.
The darker ending is down largely to Barry Taylor's “Charlotte”, a determined activist who will stop at nothing to sign Valentina's guests up to her Sorority. The scene between Taylor and Peter Jeary's Judge (Jeary stepping into “Amy”'s size 10s at a week's notice) is a dramatic masterpiece, and sets the tone for the end of the play, where an icy appearance by the Judge's unsympathetic daughter [Catherine Kenton] reminds us of just how different attitudes were half a century ago.
A superb production of a fascinating piece – a fine note on which to end a successful season for CTW.
image: guests at the original Casa Susanna