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Neil Bartlett's new play is inspired by the scandalous true story of Victorian cross-dresser Ernest Boulton.
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There’s a preciseness to Neil Bartlett’s writing, a kind of careful literariness, that isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. But what he excels at is sketching detailed portraits of exceptional lives.
It’s a skill Bartlett demonstrates here, in his first major new play in London for over three years, appearing as part of this year’s LIFT Festival. Hoxton Hall is an evocative backdrop for his exploration of the life and lonely death of Ernest Boulton, best known as his alter ego, Stella.
The real-life Stella was part of a popular Victorian theatrical cross-dressing double-act, but Bartlett is more interested in the resonance of pairing young and old versions of the same person. Richard Cant as the older, cancer-suffering Ernest, shares the stage with Oscar Batterham’s Young Stella.
In 1870, Stella was arrested after using ladies’ toilets outside a London theatre and charged with soliciting sex. She was acquitted, but this haunted the rest of her career. Bartlett digs into the pain of living a life society won’t accept as anything other than a scandal to be played out in lurid headlines and, later, on stage for leery audiences.
Cant’s Ernest is a hollowed-out man, the mirrors of his life smashed as he awaits a taxi like an appointment with death. Batterham’s prickly, hopeful Stella, meanwhile, applies rouge and awaits a lover who will never arrive. Footlights at the back of the stage pop like camera bulbs or a judge’s gavel, and both wince.
Bartlett, also directing, steeps his production in stillness, focusing our attention on the two actors. The effect is almost chafing, but magnifies the strength of their performances. Batterham particularly impresses -- as brittle as glass on the edge of breaking. And as Arthur talks about Stella as ‘her’, the play scrutinises gender in ways recognisable today.
David Carr’s silent attendant feels superfluous, and there’s a crystalline quality to ‘Stella’ that sometimes verges on cold. But this production’s restraint also has a melancholic power that pulls you in and gets under your skin.