It’s refreshing to see this venue presenting a show that doesn’t rely on twinky toplessness on stage or in its marketing materials. Instead, writer and director Glenn Chandler gives us a true story from between the wars, about a peculiar young man and his doting mother.
We first meet Sidney Fox (Sebastian Calver) in his prison cell, awaiting trial for the murder of his mother Rosaline (Amanda Bailey) and meeting his barrister James D Cassels (Mark Curry) for the first time. The story of how Sidney came to be there is then told in flashback in a nicely paced 70 minutes, which succeeds in introducing us to some intriguing characters, but ultimately doesn’t really make the best of a promising premise.
Illegitimate Sidney was extraordinarily close to his mum. These apron strings were never cut and, in this telling of the story, that suited them both, as they moved together around the south of England from one lodging to the next, according to the tide of their fortunes. Said fortunes were never particularly buoyant, with Sidney receiving several jail sentences for fraud and supplementing the meagre income from menial jobs with the money he earned as a rent boy. Then in 1929 Rosaline died in an apparently accidental fire at a Margate hotel – but it wasn’t long until suspicions were raised and the finger of blame started to point towards Sidney…
Chandler evokes the era with some style, greatly aided by a really effective set design by David Shields, which includes vivid photographic projections on the rear wall. The bleak grey emptiness of Sidney’s prison cell is captured powerfully in Shield’s background for these scenes, with the force of the image working in perfect tandem with the action on stage.
Bailey and Curry are both impressive, Curry convincingly inhabiting the role of the experienced lawyer who is as close to impartial as he can be, while as Rosaline, Bailey subtly hints at the complexity of a mother who perhaps loves her son too much. If Calver as Sidney is a touch needy and shrill, it’s difficult to imagine how the script could be otherwise interpreted. Very natty suit, though.
Where the play falters is in its failure to capitalise on the dramatic potential of its source material. Sidney’s relationship with his mother is fascinating but almost completely unexplored, as if Chandler is somehow reluctant to look too closely at the psychology of the characters he’s chosen to write about. More frustrating still, for a story set when homosexuality was illegal and frequently prosecuted, Sidney’s sexuality barely features in the narrative. Chandler’s programme notes suggest that Sidney may have been prosecuted for murder because of his sexuality, but this horrifying possibility is nowhere to be seen in the play itself. To turn what might have been a gripping examination of institutional bigotry into something that’s hardly a gay play at all seems a perplexing missed opportunity.
Written and directed by: Glenn Chandler
Produced by: Boys of the Empire
Sidney Fox’s Crime plays at Above The Stag until 7 May. Further information and bookings can be found here.