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The Theatreguide.London Review

Casa Valentina
Southwark Playhouse    Autumn 2015

There is an advertisement in the Southwark Playhouse programme for a book of photographs taken in the early 1960s at a New York State resort that catered to transvestites. So we know that Harvey Fierstein's 2014 play is inspired by reality as he imagines the personalities and experiences of such men. 

The owner and guests of the titular resort are all married heterosexual men who like, every once in a while, to put on frocks, wigs and make-up and let their feminine sides out. And so the first part of Fierstein's play is largely light comedy, with a laugh-generating mix of girly and bitchy humour alongside lip-syncing to records and sharing make-up tips. 

Things begin to turn darker when the most political guest argues that they should all out themselves, to break through societal prejudices, and the passionate debate that follows dramatises how much each of them has to lose.

Things get even more serious when the suggestion that they distance themselves from homosexuals and other 'perverts' leads to the argument that as a rejected sexual minority they shouldn't be rejecting another, especially one that has been supportive of them. 

And things get even darker when one person stoops to the ugliest kind of blackmail to try to win another's vote, and when after the subject had carefully been avoided through most of the play we see the cost to wives and children of the men's 'harmless' activities. 

The comedy, the debates and the discoveries of individual turmoil and pain are all dramatically engrossing, and there is both more meat and more light entertainment to this play than to many others. 

Director Luke Sheppard and his cast navigate the shifts in tone adroitly and keep us involved throughout, and there are particularly strong performances by Matt Rixon as the wittiest and most broadly comic, Gareth Snook as the instigator of the debates, and Tamsin Carroll as the innkeeper's supportive wife. 

It may only be after leaving the play that you become aware of its limitations. 

The plot and characterisations are built on the premise that each man's female persona is a separate, happier individual from the man who happens to share her body, and yet we never actually see that. 

Only three of the men are briefly encountered as men, too short a time to establish a character separate from their female selves, and so we have to take the affinities and differences between the two on faith. 

And ultimately more unhappy for those who want to walk away cheered by this play is the realisation that it is a twenty-first century variant on Mart Crowley's 1968 The Boys In The Band, the first mainstream play to present homosexuals sympathetically, though its ultimate vision was that, despite all the camaraderie and bitchy humour, his characters were deeply unhappy and wished they could be 'normal'. 

Harvey Fierstein's characters in this play are not gay, and they try to convince themselves that they're happy in their dresses and wigs. But Fierstein is too honest a writer to let them convince us.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -  Casa Valentina - Southwark Playhouse 2015 

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