Review: The Flea at The Yard Theatre ★★★★★
A scintillating take on the Cleveland Street Scandal from writer James Fritz, directed by The Yard’s Artistic Director Jay Miller.
The Flea thrills, poking at the absurdity of airs through delightfully campy characters, punk rock glam, and a hysterically dishevelled Queen Victoria who basks in a legacy cemented by Judi Dench.
Written by James Fritz and directed by Jay Miller, The Flea is based on the true story of the Victorian-era Cleveland Street Scandal of 1889, in which the arrest of a telegraph boy threatened to unravel a conspiracy linked to the highest levels of government. Starting with a flea’s bite, the play follows the domino effect of actions that brought the gay brothel at 19 Cleveland Street out into public, during a time when sex between men was illegal. It explores the choices of those in power to protect themselves from being implicated by the scandal, and the life-altering consequences of their refusal to take the blame. The Flea features Norah Lopez Holden, Connor Finch, Scott Karim, Séamus Mclean Ross, and Sonny Poon Tip as its raucous cast of comedic characters, each working to make sure they come out on top of the chaos.
This play is an absolute party. Aesthetically, we witness a Victorian world turned topsy-turvy by brilliant set designer, Naomi Kuyck-Cohen, who designs a staircase consisting of filing cabinets, tiny loveseats for the rich, and a Grecian column as the Queen’s throne. Bored aristocrats, framed in oddly-shaped spaces – where their legs must either dangle or scrunch – appear ridiculous, delighting the audience. The play’s costumes, designed by Lambdog1066, are especially worth highlighting – a wild collage of Victorian folds, ruffles, and frippery remixed with modern leather jackets, zippers, and uniforms to create a punkish vibe of excess. Merging past and present, the costumes of The Flea echo its wider linking of Victorian-era backroom power dealing and deep class divides, and look damn good while doing it.
Playfully performed, the actors amaze with their ability to be both cheeky and charming. While the audience howl at Séamus Mclean Ross’ punchy portrayal of the flippant Bertie Prince of Wales – who slips between personas of predator and prey with chilling ease – his other role as the young Charlie Swinscow, a spunky son determined to save his mother from poverty, leaves us on the edge of our seats, holding our breath as he swallows seeming betrayal.
Though Victorian on its surface, The Flea feels deeply anchored in the present, exploring desperation in the face of impossible costs of living, layers of corruption spread by politicians desperate to save their own skins, and the brutal consequences of an unjust social system on the people left at its mercy. Despite exploring these heavy themes, the play never feels weighed down by them. Instead, it’s endlessly hilarious, delighting in the absurd messiness of its characters while dancing with a fierce anger at the unfairness of it all. Enraged but never quite jaded, the show’s amusing antics pull us along, leaving us chuckling at the ever-greater absurdity of it all, until the moments when the awful truth of what each character’s decisions means for each other become painfully clear.
This show is as wild as the spooked horse that knocks out Charlie Swinscow’s father. It’s an uproariously funny and sparklingly imaginative ride that we tempt you to take before it closes on November 18th!
Photography by Marc Brenner.
Mary Tooley is completing a Masters of Arts in Theatre and Performance at Queen Mary, University of London. Her research engages specifically with feminist theory, disability justice, Indigenous Autonomy, and activism and protest. As an avid artist and performer – and former student of music theatre performance at Sheridan College in Oakville – she’s devising performance pieces that aim to find majesty in the mess.
Hamish Hutchison-Poyntz is a theatre practitioner, writer and reviewer, and aspiring director/producer. He recently completed his MA in Theatre and Performance at Queen Mary, University of London, specializing in the use of games and participatory theatre to respond to the climate crisis. Originally from Vancouver, Canada, he now lives in London’s East End. Besides theatre, he loves games, spooky audiodramas, and good cats (which is to say, all cats).