Caitlyn Jenner, Kelly Maloney… gender identity challenges are all over the media at the moment. But what we forget to think is that in a modern society, thankfully, people who divert from gender normative expectations are now widely accepted, whereas this wasn’t the case 60 years ago. In order to achieve this acceptance, and to continue to grow from this, we have to remember how it all started.
This is why Casa Valentina is so relevant to today’s audience. We are immediately engulfed into the decorative lives of these cross-dressing, heterosexual men as they spent their weekend at a private resort in 1960’s upstate New York. As this was something that was widely frowned upon, it is fascinating to be transported into this world of beautiful secrecy. As you walk in the room, you are greeted with trees, flowers, and daintily decorated ornaments dispersed around the entire room. Above, there are hundreds of old fashioned lampshades, each with its own lightbulb brightly shining through. A perfect metaphor to introduce the feel of the piece.
But what I have to say that I loved about this piece was the absolute, sheer honesty involved. Harvey Fierstein, who also wrote classic transgender pieces such as La Cage Aux Follies and Kinky Boots, demonstrates the raw truth of these women without glamourising or mocking them. Fierstein doesn’t appear to make these women fabulous (although as women, they/we all have their/our diva moments!), but simply shows the beauty in the truth of wanting to be happy. The writing of the piece is palatable to a modern audience, whilst showing credibility to the era through its quick wit and punch.
Will Burton seems to have formed an absolutely stellar cast who perform perfectly as an ensemble together. Despite all being magnificent actors anyway, having a cast that gel together so clearly on stage is something of a rarity, and when you do find it, it is absolute gold to view. The cast perform in the round, and Luke Sheppard has once again enriched the talent with his beautiful direction. There were so many moments to choose from, I was spoilt for choice without the feeling that I was going to miss something vital.
As the only genetic female in the cast, Tamsin Carroll makes her mark as the ballsy, yet comfortingly accepting Rita. Her performance at the end of the show is phenomenal as she holds the audience in the palm of her hand. A special mention also must go to Ashley Robinson. It has to be said that his eyes absolutely pop in the beautiful green ensemble he wears as Gloria, but also how magnetic he was to watch as he warmed the audience with his truthful performance (looks like she’s not just a pretty face!).
This is a piece that is pushing the boundaries in all senses. The struggles, twists and turns the characters all endure take the audience on an emotional roller coaster, and one which is truthful to the original, true story. Not only was it interesting to learn the truth behind the growth, but it made the audience fall in love with these men who just wanted to be accepted. I am grateful for the awareness of this story, not only for enjoyment, but so that I and many others can appreciate the development in people who have pushed the boundaries of acceptance in order to rightly feel accepted.
Casa Valentina is playing at the Southwark Playhouse until 10 October. For more information and tickets, see Southwark Playhouse website. Photo by Robert Workman.