Hoxton Hall, London, LIFT 2016 (****)

© Dom Agius, Richard Cant (Old Stella), Oscar Batterham (Young Stella)

© Dom Agius, Richard Cant (Old Stella), Oscar Batterham (Young Stella)

So LIFT, the London International Festival of Theatre for 2016 is off and running. Where would British theatre be without this biennial celebration and its challenging, radical visions over the past 35 years?

Certainly, it might be a lot less daring. LIFT have brought extraordinary work to London, often vilified at the time but later absorbed and refashioned by new generations into the rich ecology we have today.

Neil Bartlett has been one of the country’s major theatrical ground-breakers for just about as long. Stella is his return to LIFT after thirty years with a story that taps into current trans-gender issues and beguiles even as it celebrates the theatre in which it sits.

A little bit of gold-dust hovers over Hoxton as performance merges with the old music hall – saved by Quakers and re-equipped thanks to Heritage Lottery money – in Bartlett’s refashioning of the life of Ernest Boulton, Victorian drag queen and one half of music hall duo `Fanny and Stella’.

Bartlett has always been intensely theatrical. While exploring gay and transgressive themes, he;s created the most haunting, arresting of images So it is here.

© Dom Agius, Oscar Batterham as Young Stella

© Dom Agius, Oscar Batterham as Young Stella

A tale of identity, danger, transformation and honesty, on a stark stage, split by sudden flashing spotlights, a gaunt, middle-aged man (the wonderful Richard Cant, Cheek by Jowl regular) stares into space, attended by a tall, dark, silent figure (Death or archetypal Ferryman). Very soon he will be joined by a fey, fluttering figure – himself when younger, his other self.

For the next hour, Bartlett delivers a fascinating, jigsaw puzzle duologue between these two. Newcomer Oscar Batterham, coquettish, flirtatious, is stunningly beautiful in a brave performance that captures defiance and fear of lives lived as drag/female impersonators (Bartlett reveals he did much research talking to Japanese onnagata as well as Bloolips founders Bette Bourne and Ivan Cartwright).

© Dom Agius, Richard Cant as Old Stella, David as The Attendant

© Dom Agius, Richard Cant as Old Stella, David as The Attendant

Genet-like with a smattering of Lindsay Kemp in its illusory framework, like a fleeting dream it calls down the years to ghosts of the past whilst offering an earnest appeal to the present and future to, paradoxically in this world of changing shapes, be essentially oneself.

Camp and grave, and spellbinding with it.
Attention! Master craftsman at work.

A new play by Neil Bartlett


Old Stella: Richard Cant
Young Stella: Oscar Batterham
The Attendant: David Carr

Director: Neil Bartlett
Design: Rae Smith
Costumes: Johanna Coe
Lighting: Rick Fisher with Martin McLachlan
Sound: Christopher Shutt with Dinah Mullen
Music: Nicholas Bloomfield
Voice Coach: Rebecca Root
Make-Up: Francois Testory
Casting: Siobhan Bracke

Producer: Polly Thomas

Co-commissioned by the Brighton Festival, the London International Festival of Theatre, and the Holland Festival.

World premiere of Stella, Theatre Royal Brighton on May 27, 2016
London premiere at Hoxton Hall, June 2, 2016

Stella runs at Hoxton Hall to June 18, 2016

Review first published in Reviewsgate June 2016, and slightly amended here