Have you heard of the Cleveland Street scandal? No, it’s not another Tory government balls up, it’s a piece of London and LGBTQ+ history that’s largely forgotten. It’s a true story of class, crisis, cover-ups, and the crown. Now, you can discover a retelling of this dramatic episode in our history with The Flea at The Yard Theatre in London.
What is the Cleveland Street scandal?
Back in 1889, sexual acts between men were illegal in Britain. So, when a homosexual male brothel in Fitzrovia was discovered by police, the brothel’s clients were keen to avoid being discovered. If found out, they faced possible prosecution and social rejection. As you can imagine, prominent patrons were keen to protect their names and reputations. And the government was accused of helping cover up aspects of the story.
It was rumoured that Prince Albert Victor — Queen Victoria’s grandson and second-in-line to the British throne — had visited. The police acquired testimonies that Lord Arthur Somerset, an equerry to the Prince of Wales, was a patron. But both he and the brothel keeper, Charles Hammond, managed to flee abroad before a prosecution could be brought.
However, the male prostitutes — who also worked as telegraph messenger boys for the General Post Office — were unable to rely on the same network of protection as their upper-class patrons. They were tried by public opinion, humiliated in the press and given custodial sentences. So, in some ways, nothing much has changed since the days of the Cleveland Street scandal.
The Flea is written by acclaimed playwright James Fritz and is directed by The Yard Theatre’s Founder and Artistic Director, Jay Miller. It gives you an insight into the scandal that rocked the nation back in 1889.
It’s July 1889 in London and Charlie Swinscow is arrested for theft. The police think he’s carrying more cash than a poor lad like him should be. The thing is, he didn’t steal it. He just let a lord have a go between his legs.
James Fritz’ plays for stage include Lava (Fifth Word/Soho Theatre), The Fall (National Youth Theatre/Southwark Playhouse), Parliament Square (Royal Exchange/Bush Theatre), Ross & Rachel (Assembly/BAC/59E59), and Four Minutes Twelve Seconds (Hampstead Theatre/Trafalgar Studios). He’s also written audio plays including Dear Harry Kane and Death Of A Cosmonaut for BBC Radio 4.
Fritz has won the Critics Circle Theatre Award for Most Promising Playwright, the Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting, The Imison and Tinniswood BBC Audio Drama Awards and the ARIA Radio Academy Award for Best Drama on two separate occasions. He has also been nominated for the Olivier Award for Outstanding Achievement in an Affiliate Theatre and was runner-up in the 2013 Verity Bargate Award.
What else can you see at theatres in London this autumn? Click this way for more interesting and quirky off-West End shows.
When: On until 18 November 2023. Performances at 7.30pm plus matinees at 2.30pm on 21st and 28th October and 4th, 11th, 18th and 25th November
Where: The Yard Theatre, Unit 2a Queens Yard, London E9 5EN
£: Tickets cost from £10 with prices increasing as the theatre fills, so the earlier you book the cheaper your seats are. If you live locally, get a Yard Local Card to bag 30% off. If you’re aged 26 or under, you can get £5 tickets on the door to any performance that’s not sold out. The play itself is suitable for ages 16+
More info: www.theyardtheatre.co.uk