For tiny critters, fleas have had a disproportionate impact on British history. The fleas that spread Black Death in the 14th Century were responsible for the biggest social and economic disruption of the Middle Ages (as well killing one in four of the population). The insect that gives its name to the play The Flea, running at The Yard Theatre in Hackney Wick, initiates a chain of events that threatens a comparable upheaval five centuries later.
The year is 1889, four years after the moral panic-inspired criminalisation of “gross indecency” between men and six years before Oscar Wilde’s disastrous libel suit against the Marquess of Queensbury. The play opens with Emily Swinscow (Norah Lopez Holden) explaining the circumstances that led to her tanner husband’s death – a flea bit a rat, which startled a horse, which kicked out and killed him. Turning away from the audience, she despairs of her safety if she cannot pay the rent.
Her son, London Telegram messenger Charlie (Séamus McLean Ross), finds new ways of earning extra money – “lying down for gentlemen” at a house in Fitzrovia. Until, that is, he is accused of stealing from his official place of work and foolishly spills the beans about his other source of income.
Written by James Fritz and directed by Jay Miller, The Flea is a rumbustiously fun romp through late Victorian society. It is very loosely based on the Cleveland Street scandal, which resulted from a police raid on a male brothel at 19 Cleveland Street (the house has since been demolished to make way for the Middlesex Hospital redevelopment). Several aristocrats were accused of being patrons, and there were also rumours of visits by “Eddie”, Duke of Clarence and second in line to the throne – a shadowy masked figure in the play, only glimpsed flitting in the disco shadows.
As the police – a keen constable (Sonny Poon Tip) and a detective struggling to save his reputation (Scott Karim) – pursue their enquiries, whispers of scandal stalk up the echelons of society until they reach its zenith, Queen Victoria herself. The small spaces of The Yard are transformed: the split stage allows scenes to run in parallel, and the hierarchy of Victorian society is wittily made real, as aristocrats ascend the back wall of the set, with poor Charlie imprisoned behind the rungs of their ladder.
Each of the actors plays two or more roles, and they swap their Steampunk-Steptoe costumes at lighting speed. Holden excels as the two mothers at the heart of the drama – Swinscow and Victoria. As the former, she switches fluently back and forth between narrator and player, drawing the audience into her story but also standing back from it. As the latter, wearing what looks like a dead cassowary on her head, she is the only character who faces a real moral dilemma as she ponders whether or not to put her family and the monarchy itself above the law.
Everyone else seems trapped, their behaviour constrained by circumstance and class. That is not to say the characters are unsubtle or caricatures. Connor Finch makes you feel for Lord Arthur Somerset, who naively believes that the young man he falls for at the brothel reciprocates his feelings, even as his more discreet friend Henry FitzRoy, Earl of Euston (also played by Tip) urges caution and uses his influence to help his pal out. The only wholly unsympathetic characters are the sulphurous brothel keeper Charles Hammond (Karim) and the Prince of Wales, played by Ross with a monstrous mix of buffoonery and brutality.
The story moves fast as events gather momentum. The script and directing is tight and the acting lively, with a carnivalesque relish that belies the bleak subject matter. After Victoria makes the decision on which the whole play pivots, the second half feels slightly slower paced. However, I can understand why Fritz and Miller want to take the time to mirror the first half, as the consequences of the Queen’s decision come cascading down through society. Consequences for some, that is. I don’t think it’s a spoiler or a surprise to say that we end with impunity for the privileged and judicial violence for the victims of sexual exploitation.
And after all that, we end up right where we started, with Emily and Charlie Swinscow scraping by, and a flea.
See The Flea at The Yard until 2 December. Tickets here. Photo by Marc Brenner from The Yard website. X/Twitter: Richard Brown and On London. Read more about The Yard Theatre here. If you value On London and its coverage of the capital, become a supporter or a paying subscriber to editor and publisher Dave Hill’s personal Substack for £5 a month or £50 a year.