A man sits, alone, isolated, staring bleakly into the distance. Across his face run memories of his past, concern of the present and fear of what is to come. This is the moment we are first drawn into Neil Bartlett’s play Stella– an insightful, intriguing addition to LIFT Festival’s eclectic range of productions.
Stella retells the story of Ernest Boulton, a drag queen – Stella – who passes for a young woman even when not performing. It recounts the stress that her position created, the joy that it gave her and shows us the wrongs done to her, all leaving a prominent opinion on our current insensitivity. The piece itself, written by Neil Bartlett, portrays elements of a one-man show, despite having two leading men. We soon learn that the man we have become attached to at the beginning is not only Boulton, but Boulton awaiting his death. On the other side of the stage we are introduced to young Stella, eagerly dressing and waiting for Arthur, a Tory MP and aristocrat who was Stella’s lover for many years. Here we see her panic about how she looks and what she will say when Arthur arrives.
As we progress through the show, the monologues from young and old Stella become cleverly intertwined. A knock at the door for one gives a feeling of excitement, and then destruction, while for another it gives fear and relief. The two characters do not only juxtapose themselves in age but also in mental state. Old Boulton is wrapped up in his own mental state, internalising every emotion and the sounds of the outside world become a blur as he studies through his emotions. For young Stella, the excitement bounds around her and she is conscious of how the world will perceive her as she steps out onto the pavement to go for dinner. For her, her external exposure is just as important as her internal state.
The duo that lift this production up are Richard Cant (Old Stella) and Oscar Batterham (Young Stella). Cant offers a touching, boundary breaking performance, giving an astounding performance that echoes the intricacies of all of Stella’s emotions and life. He himself has lived through the part and stirs the audience. Batterham portrays the much more lively, excited Stella put again pours heart and soul into the part. He creates a complex, distinctive performance that depicts Stella in her youth. A man dressed all in black accompanies these two characters on stage. The Attendant (David Carr) is there to aid the other performers, symbolising a feeling of darkness, panic and destruction- he gets closer when a negative force comes into their lives. Unfortunately, this is the only aspect of the production that was not fully realised. When used, Carr was effective, slick and intricate but elsewhere he seemed useless and unimportant to the rest of the production. The show could have been held without his presence.
Dinah Mullen, Christopher Shutt, Rick Fisher and Martin McLachlan pull this production together with their inventive and effective technical. Dinah Mullen and Christopher Shutt create sounds that echo the severity, nervousness and tension in the piece, adding to the already apprehensive atmosphere. Rick Fisher and Martin McLachlan’s lighting design of bursting bulbs resonate with Stella’s previous job as a touring drag queen and simultaneously give the impression of being in the limelight with sudden, unexpected burst of light, making an air of uncomfortable tension.
It is incredibly rare to see something so poignant as this production done as perfectly as this. Stella pulls us into the past, taking all our sympathy and emotions while also allowing us to reevaluate our actions and opinions towards individuals like Stella. With such a slick and touching production it is almost impossible to find a reason that you should not go and see this show.
Stella is playing Hoxton Hall until 18 June. For more information and tickets, see LIFT festival website.
Image: Fred Spalding