The ceiling is peppered with lampshades, pale, pastel and pretty. The kind your grandmother might have died by. The sense of the transition to the 1960’s is palpable, not just because of the shades, but the parquet flooring as well, and the old fashioned dressing tables which are set out against the walls of the theatre. It is a warm and cosy space, undoubtedly, but something “other” is clearly in the air.

Hits from the period pump into the auditorium. Walk Like A Man is just one of the perky numbers played. Branches of trees, foliage absent, protrude into the space, effortlessly suggesting the Catskills where the action takes place. There is a patch of green grass which evokes the sense of a porch. Everything is very clearly American, yet “other”. Why seems ineffable.

And then it becomes clear. Lampshades are all individual; they can be pretty, frilly or plain. They present a deliberate picture to the outside world, a deliberate choice. Lampshades express the personality and character of their owners. And they all hide light bulbs.

As a metaphor for a play about the special and fragile world of the heterosexual transvestite male, this setting is about as inspired as might be imagined. And the gentle warmth the lampshades issue provides a subtle reminder of the strength of character at play in the action.

This is Casa Valentina, an unusual, but incredibly beautifully written, play about tensions with transvestites in the Catskills in 1962, now playing its London premiere season at the Southwark Playhouse. It feels like this is Harvey Fierstein week in London, what with both Kinky Boots and Casa Valentina opening within 48 hours. Indeed, wits might say that it is a case of Kinky Boots and Kinky Boys, as Casa Valentina examines a group of men who like to cross-dress. The two very different works have much in common. In particular, the narratives demonstrate why it is best for people to embrace their true selves and why failing so to do can having shattering repercussions

Casa Valentina had a modest run in New York in 2014 and, with some reservations about casting, was a worthwhile, and thoughtful, night in the theatre . I said on that occasion that this might be the best play Fierstein has written and this production serves only to re-enforce that view. It is not the case that every time a play is produced, it can have a different, but profoundly resonant effect – but so it is with this play.

As directed by Luke Sheppard, Casa Valentina is a play about a marriage. Everything turns on the central relationship between George (Edward Wolstenholme) and Rita (Tamsin Carroll). They have an unconventional marriage. She married him knowing that he liked to dress in women’s’ clothing; indeed, she has fostered and supported his desire because she loves him. She is content for his dress-wearing self to be the prettiest girl in their marriage. She welcomes, supports and mothers the other men who come to rent rooms in their weekend guesthouse and unleash their inner woman. A Weekend In The Country with a difference.

Everything is splendid with them until the moment comes when George tries to change the rules of their marriage, when he decides he wants something without talking it through with Rita. Something that fundamentally alters the terms of their union. In this particular case, what he wants turns on his need to cross-dress, but their relationship is a metaphor for all relationships everywhere, whatever their nature. Fierstein makes the simple point that relationships of any kind can flourish where there is trust, honesty and communication. Absent that, however, only pain is certain.

Framed this way, the different lives, attitudes and positions of the friends who make up their cross-dressing circle is important because it shows the pressures and strains and yearnings which come to make George feel differently about what he wants.

There is much joy and camaraderie with the cross-dressers, but an underlying sense of fear and suspicion too. They all want to be free to express themselves as they wish, but all are acutely aware of the dim view society would have of their proclivities. Some have a fear of being judged as homosexuals; some hide their own sexuality; some lead hidden lives, excluding their wives and children from what makes them happy. All live in fear.

Fierstein creates a melting pot here for many ideas and thoughts. It’s all wrapped up in a sea of humour and honest warmth, but there are treacherous and duplicitous rocks in that sea, swells which will make you shudder just as others make you smile and laugh. It is a clever and insightful play about love, friendship and honesty – three topics that impinge on any life.

Justin Nardella’s set is simple but utterly perfect, framing the world of these hidden desires gently but elegantly. Andrew Riley provides clever and suitably charming costumes on a shoestring budget, but they all work, especially the ensembles which make Gloria (Ashley Robinson) and Charlotte (Gareth Snook) formidable as types. Staging in the round has many inherent challenges for lighting designers, but Howard Hudson does a sterling job in managing mood through light, as the scenes flick and flutter through the emotional spectrum.

Sheppard’s decision to use the in-the-round mode pays mixed dividends. On the one hand, there is an unavoidable intimacy which is perfectly suited to this hidden world of secret desires and untold truths. On the other hand, inevitably some key action is missed because the circular platform means not everyone in the audience can see everything occur. On balance though, what is lost is outweighed by the connectivity of closeness: it’s harder to ignore the characters as people when you are close enough for their chiffon and tulle to caress your shoulder as they sashay past you.

In other respects, however, Sheppard’s vision here is not as crisp and clean as it might be. There is a tangible difference between drag and transvestism and this difference, key to several exchanges in the play, is unaccountably blurred. These men might be camp, but not in the homosexual sense – again, the text labours this point; these are men who strive to be real women, who give pretty names to their feminine side, and who (mainly) want nothing more than to be accepted for what they are. This lack of clarity unnecessarily confuses the narrative threads. It works against Charlotte (Gareth Snook), Terry (Bruce Montague) and Amy (Robert Morgan) particularly.

But these issues don’t seriously diminish the effectiveness of Fierstein’s writing, most especially because of immaculate casting in the key roles. Robinson is superb, channeling his inner Julianne Moore, as the pouty, hour-glass figure siren, Gloria. From the start, Gloria is a seething mass of sensual eccentricity, with a tongue that can lash or caress and eyes that never stop assessing, appraising and judging. Robinson plays the role with a controlled, exuberant assuredness and, when it comes, his verbal dissection of Snook’s snarly Charlotte is magnificent.

Wolstenholme is equally superb as George/Valentina who, with Carroll’s Rita, runs the guesthouse. The pair establish a strong, sexual bond early in the play and there is no doubting the reality of their union. This is especially clever, and very important if the later scenes are to work as they might. Wolstenholme makes George angry and frustrated, uncertain and secretive; the complete opposite of his Valentina. This provides a frisson for the reality that George endures which resonates throughout the play and sheds light on his key relationships with Rita, Charlotte, Gloria and Amy. It’s an inspired and thoroughly convincing portrait of a soul in crisis.

As the young man who is visiting the guesthouse for the first time, an almost virgin cross-dresser, Ben Deery is terrific. He matches hesitation with girlish enthusiasm perfectly: the moment when he first appears as Miranda, rather like a schoolboy showing off his uniform for the first time, hesitant but hopeful, is magical. As is the genial and splendidly communal scene where Miranda is given a makeover. Hilarious but full of heart. (Miranda’s unpractised wig styling provides Carroll with an opportunity for the sight gag of the evening). Later, when the facade cracks, Deery does not succumb to melodrama. He steers a brilliant course through unravelling honesty and mounting fear.

Each of Morgan, Montague and Matthew Rixon (the often very funny Oscar Wilde quoting Bessie) do good work, although occasionally the desire to be liked by the audience, and to be funny, overcomes the through-line of the character. But, equally, each has moments of brutal insight and rewarding observation. Montague’s speech about why he could never spurn the friendship of a homosexual is a true highlight of the evening. Charlie Hayes makes a late but confronting appearance as Amy’s daughter, Eleanor and in one short, pungent scene, carefully lays out public perception about transvestism. Hayes is deliciously uncomfortable.

Snook misjudges Charlotte as a character. The extremities are shown, albeit inconsistently, but he goes nowhere near the ragged, raging interior turmoil of this political, defensive, and ambitious brute. Seething, quiet, superior revulsion would serve this character better, especially in the marvellously written confrontation with Judge Amy (which provides Morgan with his finest moment). Snook’s option of an Alexis Colby Carringtonesque entitled gorgon certainly has its advantages, but Fierstein’s writing concerns a more special creation. Definitely a case where Less would be More.

Given his background and past successes, such as Torch Song Trilogy, Hairspray and La Cage Aux Folles, you would expect Fierstein’s best work in Casa Valentina to concern his male characters. That was certainly the impression the New York premiere gave: memories of Charlotte, Amy, Terry, Gloria and Miranda are what prevail. But here, the radiant Tamsin Carroll shows plainly why the most complex and fascinating character is the one genuine girl in the guestlodge: Rita.

Dressed sensibly but mousily (the cardigan is a masterstroke), Carroll’s Rita hovers on the fringes of the girly goings-on, providing her husband with practical as well as moral support. She fixes wigs, airs and irons frocks, helps with make-up, cooks and cleans. She makes this unique sorority house safe and special. Carroll imbues Rita with a fierce loyalty to George and his girlfriends; she is watchful, but complicit in the fun and accomplished at making the girls feel at ease, get along. She diffuses fights and corrects misunderstandings; mothers everyone. Determinedly the plainest girl in the gaggle, Carroll’s Rita shows the lengths and depths that true love demands of one caught in its embrace.

Carroll and Wolstenholme are perfect together and everything about their relationship works. Equally, Carroll establishes a clear bond with every other character, even Charlotte and Miranda, the two people Rita meets for the first time as the play unfolds. You know where Rita stands with everyone and about everything. When Rita comes to articulate her secret fear, Carroll is breath-taking, a symphony of desperation and alarm. Although it is not Rita who ends up in hospital, as enlivened by Carroll, she is the character who emerges to have suffered the most, to have been the most tragic. The final image of Rita, doubled over and wracked with stinging sobs, is incredibly powerful. Acting at its most complete, its most captivating, its most affecting.

This is a very important and timely play. It places the microscope on notions of equality in ways that are rarely discussed or contemplated. It’s funny, frivolous, serious and important all at once. Beautifully written, beautifully designed and mostly beautifully played, this is, as Osric would say “a palpable hit”, far more effective, thanks to Carroll and Wolstenholme in particular, than the original New York production. If there is any justice, it will transfer and play in the West End or at the Dorfman. It’s a play that needs to be seen.

Five stars

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Stephen Collins
With years of experience on both sides of the curtain, Stephen Collins has worked as an actor, singer, director, producer and casting consultant, indulging his passion for live theatre. Occasionally a media lawyer, who has worked in-house for the likes of Channel 4 and The Sunday Times, he can usually be found in an audience. In 2014 and 2015, he was lead critic for Britishtheatre.com. He thinks the West End and London is the centre of the theatrical universe (sorry Broadway!), but fears it's not possible to see absolutely everything that’s on there. He doesn’t stop trying though. Cocktails help when it all gets too much.