Groundbreaking LGBT playwright, novelist and director Neil Bartlett calls Stella his "love letter sent to a very real person." But his brilliant new 70 minute play, poignantly staged in Hoxton's original and expensively renovated Victorian music hall, constantly throws into question who exactly this "real person" is, or rather was. Is it the beautiful wife of Lord Arthur Pelham-Clinton, Stella Clinton, who turns men's heads whenever she attends first nights in the West End? Is it Ernest Boulton, the son of respectable middle class Tottenham parents? Is it Stella the fleapit theatre and grubby music hall performer, or Stella/Ernest the Piccadilly sex worker available for the right price to eminent Victorian men and rough trade? Is Stella even a she or a he?
Bartlett's play - part of the LIFT festival - and his direction are surprisingly sombre for an oft-told story which usually presents Stella as one-half of an entertaining double act, Fanny and Stella, a kind of nineteenth century Thelma and Louise who tour the country's theatres dressed extravagantly, covered in plenty of slap, sticking two fingers up to Victorian hypocrisy and evading its laws. Bartlett dispenses with Fanny entirely here, and while it's peculiar that Stella doesn't refer to Fanny at all, this decision successfully focuses the audience's attention on the double act that he presents instead: one Stella at the end of her life aged 56, played hauntingly by Richard Cant, and a young Stella aged 21, the wonderfully acid-tongued Oscar Batterham.
Stella's structure, with two versions of the same character on stage simultaneously, is effective when Cant shares old Stella's memories and Batterham acts them out. At one point Batterham, her/his back to the audience looking into a hand-mirror, slowly rotates the mirror so its reflection of light beams in the faces of audience members in an upper gallery, one by one. When it was my turn to be dazzled, I felt closer to the Stella holding the mirror and also caught up in the nostalgic dreams of the old Stella as she narrated her memories of the incident. In the musty gloom of the old music hall, this was a spine-tingling moment. Bartlett was Artistic Director of the Lyric Hammersmith for over a decade and brings plenty of tricks of the trade to his fine direction of his own play.
More problematic - and not everyone will find this credible - is when the two Stellas ask each other's advice and have a bit of a chinwag. For me, this worked because of the dreamlike strangeness of the action before, thanks to the slow, deliberate intonations and diction of Cant's old Stella in particular, but also Batterham's deeply contemplative campery which suggests Stella's acute anxiety about what the future will bring. Rae Smith's minimalist set design, Rick Fisher/Martin McLachlan's lighting, Christopher Shutt/Dinah Mullen's sound effects and Nicholas Bloomfield's music also make an otherwise implausible plot seem convincing by bringing out the best of Hoxton Hall's eerie atmosphere. Bright lights on stage blind the audience at crucial moments and loud door knocks scare the life out of everyone in the room.
There is an odd third character in Stella, 'the attendant', played well enough by David Carr although he doesn't have much to do. Wearing a long black coat, he hovers on stage throughout without saying anything. Occasionally he becomes useful as a butler or manservant, holding young Stella's make-up bags as she tarts herself up. Because this production is so good I will give the attendant the benefit of the doubt and imagine him as some menacing Everyman, perhaps representing the long arm of the law whose presence is a threat throughout. Or maybe he is the Grim Reaper. Either way, his presence shouldn't detract from your enjoyment of this poetic piece, and may even add to it.