I am spoilt for choice of local parks where I can take my dog Lottie for her daily walks. Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, about 20 minutes from our front door, is one of our favourites. Apart from it being a charming public space – which includes the Vauxhall City Farm (Lottie loves the llamas) and a quaint tea house – I have always been fascinated by the park’s history.
So I was immediately hooked when Glenn Chandler told me he had written a new musical inspired by that history, staged at Above the Stag, which in its current home beneath the railway arches at Albert Embankment, actually borders the Gardens.
And I was delighted when Glenn asked me to chair a post-show Q&A to that new musical, The Pleasure Garden. This was my third Q&A event with Glenn at Above the Stag, the most recent pre-lockdown being to The Good Scout, in which he constructed a moving coming-of-age and coming-out drama around another little-explored historical nugget, the Boy Scouts’ pre-World War II exchange programme with the Hitler Youth.
Swapping from plays to musicals, for The Pleasure Garden, Glenn drafted in composer Charles Miller, with whom he had two previous Victorian-set musical hits, Fanny & Stella and The Sins of Jack Sail, to provide the score.
For two centuries, the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens drew enormous crowds for its circus acts, balloon rides, orchestral concerts and spectacular fireworks. For those in the know, however, the darker paths, wooded corners and intimate arbours were used for more illicit and illegal entertainments. But now it’s 1850 and the gardens are in their dying days. Yet still the faithful come…
In The Pleasure Garden, handsome young gardener Tom Restless is torn between the affections of a hopelessly romantic shipping clerk and a sexually voracious aristocratic couple. With the gardens closing and his livelihood under threat, will Tom choose a bohemian life with Ralph; employment with the unorthodox Lord and Lady Lovelock; or answer the drumbeat of a looming overseas war?
At the Q&A after last night’s performance, we toasted yesterday’s news of a whopping seven Offies Award nominations for The Pleasure Garden – including Best New Musical, Best Director for Fenton Gray, Best Musical Director for Aaron Clingham, Best Video Design for George Reeve and Best Ensemble – as well as the incredible save-the-day performance by London School of Musical Theatre student Millie Blair, who stepped in with just hours’ notice to play key supporting role Captain Antrobus when understudy-less cast member Jennie Jacobs fell ill.
For the discussion, I was joined by Glenn Chandler, Fenton Gray, Aaron Clingham and cast members Sam Baumal (Tom), Jay Worley (Ralph), Ashley Harvey, Benjamin Wong, Steve Watts, Jonathan Harlaw and show saviour Millie Blair.
The Pleasure Garden continues at London’s Above the Stag Theatre until 17 October 2021.
On the panel, from left to right: Steve Watts, Sam Baumal, Millie Blair, (me) chair Terri Paddock, Jay Worley, Benjamin Wong, Glenn Chandler (writer), Jonathan Harlaw, Aaron Clingham (musical director), Ashleigh Harvey and Fenton Gray (director). Event photography by Peter Jones.