looping back to Tottenham

The story of Stella. The part story of Stella. [Part of] tThe story of Stella Wrong again. is the story of Ernest Boulton. Born in Tottenham in 1848, he spent much of his adult life — his twenties, thirties and the best part of his forties I think — dressed as an “effeminate and fully slapped-up queen”. Sometimes performing on stage, sometimes a sex worker “trolling at night”, Stella had a string of men. But the love of her life was of course a Tory MP and aristocrat, Lord Arthur Pelham-Clinton. He gave Stella a ring. He paid rent on a flat where they enjoyed sex and a (briefish) life as man and wife.

Avoiding vertigo, last night we sat on the ground floor side bench at Hoxton Hall, which swung into life in 1863 and is therefore the perfect place to stage Stella the show. Written almost exquisitely by Neil Bartlett with truly superb design, lighting, sound and music, it was performed flawlessly by Richard Cant as Old Stella and Oscar Batterham as Young Stella. The third excellent member of the cast is David Carr. He plays The Attendant.

The Attendant. The Attendant. Who or what is The Attendant? Dressed in a black suit with black gloves and a long black overcoat, he creeps about the stage, the menacing figure who might be a killer, or a ghost, or a bouncer, but is then a letterbox, a dressing table, a butler, a waiter, then (again) merely a prop, then (perhaps) a bogeyman, then a cabbie, or driver of a hearse, or hang on, yes, he’s death itself. Despite these multiple roles, he remains voiceless, the silenced black male spooking about the back of the stage. I heard someone in the audience say, ‘I didn’t even notice he was there!’ Was that deliberate direction? The invisible, voiceless, frightening black male? The danger, the threat, the potential for violence… always there but not there but there. Entirely unnecessary: the play did not need The Attendant. So what was he there for?

Other highly critical responses from friends have focused more on the ‘miserabilist’ narrative that emphasises — relentlessly, they feel — the here-we-go-again ghastly life of the tragic gay man, the unhappy transvestite’s joyless struggle. Not only is it clichéd, apparently it’s also wrong. If you read Neil McKenna’s book Fanny & Stella, what you get — I’m told I must read it– is the overwhelming courage and joie de vivre and gay abandon of two men who were determined to live their lives to the full, dressed as women if they bloody well wished.


Having said all that, I’d still recommend you go see the show, especially while it’s still on at Hoxton Hall. The performances are very strong. All three men excel on stage. And I loved a lot of the writing, the narrative structure & form.