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'I laughed and cried in quick succession': Lord Collins reviews 'The Flea'

Henry Newlove: played by Connor Finch | Image by: Marc Brenner

4 min read

An imaginative retelling of the Cleveland Street sex scandal, this fast-moving play highlights Victorian class divisions whilst reminding us that the closet is never a safe place in a homophobic society

The Flea tells the story of the 1889 Cleveland Street scandal, which broke when police raided the address in Fitzrovia after it was alleged male aristocrats had been paying Post Office messenger boys for sex. Newspaper coverage at the time accused the government of covering up the scandal to protect the names of famous patrons. It was rumoured that Prince Albert Victor, the eldest son of the Prince of Wales, was a client.

The play’s imaginative format, directed by Jay Miller, combines humour and pathos. I loved the fast-moving action with the small team of actors changing characters at speed. I laughed and cried in quick succession. 

The play starts with “the flea” biting a rat that scares a horse, which kicks and kills the husband of working-class seamstress Emily Swinscow, played brilliantly by Norah Lopez Holden. Worried she can’t pay the rent, her son Charlie – a Post Office messenger boy played by Séamus McLean Ross – steps in with extra money without being clear where he got it from.

Through dramatic shifts of scenes, we soon discover the source: his secret life in the hidden world of Cleveland Street. Sex between men was illegal and those visiting or working in the house faced harsh penalties and certain social rejection if discovered. The impact of the secrets and lies forced upon men who struggle with love and identity soon becomes evident. The privilege of the wealthy is set against the struggle of the working class but neither are free to be themselves.

Naomi Kuyck-Cohen’s set, with its Alice in Wonderland feel, suits the fast-moving action. The cast’s versatility – all of whom play at least two roles – crosses the class divide. Lopez Holden also plays Queen Victoria. McLean Ross moves effortlessly from her son Charlie to a uniformed Prince of Wales. Connor Finch plays Henry Newlove, the procurer of the boys, and posh Lord Arthur Somerset. The other cast members, Scott Karim and Sonny Poon Tip, triple up delivering strong performances as a brothel keeper, detective, God, a police constable, and an earl.

The privilege of the wealthy is set against the struggle of the working class but neither are free to be themselves

The play highlights the difficult choice these men had to make but didn’t hide the corruption or abuse. Recent events show that the closet is never a safe place in a homophobic society – even for the powerful leading a secret life can take a heavy toll. When news of the scandal emerged, a parliamentary motion into allegations of a cover-up was moved by Henry Labouchere – the MP who had campaigned successfully to add the “gross indecency” amendment to the 1885 Criminal Law Amendment Act, including making all homosexual acts illegal. In the case’s aftermath the legislation was used broadly to prosecute gay men. It was famously used in 1895 against Oscar Wilde, resulting in him receiving a sentence of two years’ hard labour.

The Flea
Hammond (Scott Karim) Henry Newlove (Connor Finch) | Image by: Marc Brenner

Coincidentally the day I saw the play I finally reached the end of Volume 3 of Henry “Chips” Channon’s diaries, a must read to better understand wealth and privilege in the 20th century, even though at times hard going with all of Channon’s prejudices exposed. In the latter stages of the diary, he expresses outrage privately that a friend, Lord Montagu of Beaulieu, was jailed for 12 months for “consensual homosexual offences”. 

His outrage was not expressed publicly, possibly because he and his brother-in-law Alan Lennox-Boyd – a member of Harold Macmillan’s cabinet and later Viscount Boyd of Merton – had been intimate and often paid for sex with men. Channon criticised men who didn’t play by the rules and took risks. 

One particular entry that I had read earlier that day resonated with me during the play. It was when Channon wrote of a night when he and Alan “frolicked” with an unnamed man. Channon describes the man as “one of the most charming people alive. So reliable honest, handsome, and dull, my God! How dull but how attractive are the lower classes sometimes”. 

Funny but such hypocrisy is a trap to avoid!

Lord Collins of Highbury is a Labour peer

The Flea
Written by: James Fritz
Directed by: Jay Miller
Venue: The Yard Theatre, E9 until 2 December 2023

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