“Mr. Wilde has brains, and art, and style; but if he can write for none but outlawed noblemen and perverted telegraph boys, the sooner he takes to tailoring (or some other decent trade) the better for his own reputation and the public morals.” So said a review of Oscar Wilde’s novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, in the Scots Observer.
The Flea, now playing at the Yard Theatre in Hackney Wick, tells the story of those very same noblemen and telegraph boys. It’s an uproariously funny retelling of a tale which is, at its core, tragic and monstrous.
Our story starts with a flea. The flea bites a rat, the rat darts out and startles a horse, the horse kicks a man in its panic – and the man’s death leaves a family impoverished. Within weeks, the dead man’s fifteen-year-old son Charlie Swincow is knocking at the door of 19 Cleveland Street, a brothel in Fitzrovia.
Charlie starts coming home with money in his pockets, and his mother Emily decides to enjoy her good fortune without questioning it too much. But before long, a police investigation is underway, Charlie and his friends are facing arrest, and the whole country is in uproar.
A tight cast of five actors create an abundance of larger-than-life characters, assisted by the brilliantly flashy costume design from Lambdog1066. The set design, by Naomi Kuyck-Cohen, is whimsical and outrageously fun. It’s a production brimming with enduring images; the Prince of Wales with a hideous smear of red lipstick; Arthur Somerset made cartoonishly effeminate by perching atop a miniature chaise longue; and a truly revolting pantomime horse.
Norah Lopez Holden, the only woman on stage, brings a plaintive note of seriousness to the sea of lunacy as Emily Swincow, our narrator and viewpoint character. Connor Finchas Arthur Somerset is a real highlight, with boundless energy – camp, nervous and a little bit pathetic; and he’s equally camp as the swaggering and glittering pimp Henry Newlove.
The first act flips quickly from scene to scene, pacey and hilarious, whilst the second act is much slower, darker, and more serious. Some of the more intense scenes come out overwrought and repetitive in places. Additionally, there are too many scenes where people wander around the stage aimlessly in gimp masks; if this was trying to communicate something in particular, it eluded me.
Slight faults aside: this is a strikingly original piece of theatre and like nothing else you will see this year. It’s a howl of rage against corruption and the British class system, and a darkly hilarious and unmistakably British farce.
Written by: James Fritz
Directed by: Jay Miller
The Flea plays at The Yard Theatre until 2 December. Further information and bookings can be found here.