Here are some chinks in the dark. Billed as the first London fringe show since lockdown, Fanny and Stella is also the debut of the tiny Garden theatre, a bright courtyard attached to the Eagle pub in Kennington, south London. There is social distancing, of course, but not social layering: actors and audience are on the same level and in the same natural light. But what would the ancient Greeks have made of this: not the actors but the spectators in masks?
There are adjustments to pre-Covid practice, and some are straightforward improvements. E-tickets, up till now a relative rarity, save panic and queues. It is calming to be guided in and out of the auditorium individually rather than stumbling and scrumming. When information about cast and production is easily available online (it should also be displayed in the foyer), it will soon become apparent that most paper programmes, which are not currently permitted, are ridiculously overpriced and inadequate.
The jaunty Garden, with its decking, palm trees and painted walls, has a seaside air. That’s just right for Steven Dexter’s production of Fanny and Stella (2015), in which rambunctiousness carries a tang of salt. Glenn Chandler, who created the TV series Taggart, wrote the bouncy book and lyrics (“Has anyone seen my Fanny…?”), using the extraordinary real-life story of Ernest Boulton (“Stella”) and Frederick William Park (“Fanny”), who preferred to dress as women. Boulton lived with the Liberal MP Lord Arthur Clinton; his calling cards showed his name as Lady Arthur. In 1871 Boulton and Park were put on trial for “conspiracy to commit sodomy”; astonishingly, given the climate of the times, they were acquitted.
On Zoom, comedy often turns up in a funny hat
Jed Berry hoofs it elegantly as Boulton/Stella; as Park/Fanny, Kane Verrall sings with a nice asperity. Charles Miller’s score rolls the action along with a music hall inflection, and at the end a gentle, sardonic reminder that the acquittal did not mean that the future was smooth for “he/she ladies”.
Most of the strongest online creations during lockdown have been immediate, realistic responses to the virus-ridden world: from the Royal Court’s gathering of powerful letters by black writers to Richard Nelson’s Public Theater explorations of liberal white dilemmas. But another vein is starting up: of madcap flights into an elsewhere – into the past, into the future, up in the air, down in the ground; anywhere but here.
Teatro Vivo’s The House That Slipped Zooms its audience into the post-Covid years. “You will be connected to the year 2070 shortly,” says the voiceover at the beginning, before a group of four adults – including a gentle librarian with specs and a hedge-fund manager who can’t wait to go back to being ironic in the pub – appear on screen. The 1950s house in which they were gathered has been accidentally whisked into the future. The audience is there to help them decide whether it is worth getting back to the present.
There are benign aspects to the 2070s, in which people live in pods in the sky. Speciesism is banned: it is generally regarded as unfair that rats have been blamed for the spread of plague. There are outcrops of singing bushes, on which each leaf will when touched broadcast a different style of music. Audience members can also get their fortunes told. Asked in a pre-show questionnaire about my dream job, I had answered “reading aloud”. I was fairly happy to be informed that my declining years will be devoted to broadcasting the shipping forecast.
Zoom theatre has limitations. The central action is necessarily static and humour tends to be overemphatic, as if trying harder might break through the screen between audience and actor. The merits of the future and the present are ingeniously considered by Teatro Vivo, but they are not so much demonstrated as described and debated, with the audience, appearing at the top of the screen, called upon to deliver their views on subjects ranging from Alan Titchmarsh to the Norman conquest.
On Zoom, comedy often turns up in a funny hat. In The House That Slipped the blended organism – part vegetation, part animal – who helps guide the story wears as a head adornment what could be antlers and might be branches. In Creation Theatre’s reworking of Lewis Carroll, Alice: A Virtual Theme Park, the March Hare sports frighteningly active tendrils.
Zoe Seaton’s production, which features Charlotte Keatley as guest writer, is a series of merry episodes intended to be watched by families. Once down the intestinal-looking rabbit hole, the audience guide themselves through a series of stories by touching different icons. The Dormouse wears grey shorts. Tweedles Dum and Dee are one actor amusingly got up like duplicate early cyclists or circus performers in striped onesies and handlebar moustaches: they are the opposite of the traditional apple shape, perhaps because nowadays apple-shaped looks not so much jolly as a possible cause for anxiety.
No Zoom director has yet succeeded in doing what Punchdrunk pulled off in The Masque of the Red Death, making the audience into animistic scenery: when spectators were made to wear rigid half-masks (how some critics hated that), their beaky, inert gazes added another ring of frisson to the show. Still, the Alice audience, lined up at the top of the screen and responding to requests to perform tasks, do add energy. One family really enjoy being told to nudge each other off the sofa. Another excel when required to mime synchronised swimming. And, ah, the face of one little girl when poo pie appears on the menu.
You could argue that the more jovial, the less Carroll-like. Yet while writing this, news of yet another postponement – the King’s Edinburgh Sleeping Beauty – arrived. This Alice may be the nearest many will get to a panto this year.