It must have seemed an easy way of filling up a few quiet weeks until Christmas 1937, when Peter Ridgeway and Leonard Sachs ran a short bill of old Victorian humorous songs at the small Covent Garden theatre club they started the previous year. Somehow they forgot to stop, and almost sixty years on, 'Ridgeway's Late Joys', a fortnightly changing programme of old music hall turns, is London's (and probably the world's) longest continuous theatrical run.
There are probably two reasons why this theatrical oddity survives, now in a small theatre underneath Charing Cross station. Firstly, the entertainment is easy, undemanding and interactive, with audience participation very much part of the act. This is the most accessible show in London, with nothing that takes itself too seriously.
The second is the nature of the Players' as a non-profit membership club. Dues are only £50 a year (only £10 for young people), allowing free admission to all performances and a Young's Ale bar (with pub prices) open until the early hours. In the age of the single £50 Lloyd-Webber seat, this is indeed a bargain, and the non-profit club is kept afloat by its loyal membership.
The performances are more intimate than the usual image of 'old time music hall', with single acts accompanied by a solo piano. Most are performed faultlessly, with an artfulness that puts the bigger musicals to shame. Indeed, most of the performers have done their time in those very musicals, and welcome the chance to sing, dance and patter without a microphone or large orchestra, allowing their own talents to come through free of special effects. Meanwhile, the chairman sits on stage, introducing the acts and deftly linking them into a seamless whole, with a killing line in repartee, especially for the foreign visitors who are invited to stand and declare themselves.
The quirkiest part of the performances is the audience participation. Regular members frequently know what's coming next - 'there's nothing funnier than a joke you've heard a hundred times before', one regular told me - and like to join in with the chairman's jokes and litanies, often beating him to the punchline.
'I must apologise for the heat tonight', the chairman said on a recent warm and sticky evening. 'We did have air conditioning but ...'
'...THE BAT DIED!' chorused half the audience.
The club has an astonishing track record for starting and training the careers of hundreds of famous showbiz names, many of whom have their photos displayed proudly in the bar. The Players' was where Hattie Jacques fashioned her fierce 'Carry On Matron' persona, Corporal Jones found the voice to shout 'Permission to speak, Mr Mainwaring!', and Compo taught himself to leer at Nora Batty's underwear.
Ultimately, you'll either be swept up in the determinedly camp atmosphere, or it will leave you so cold you won't care that their bat-powered air conditioning no longer works.
It's possible to go once just to see if you'll like it; the irony is that the one-off admission of £15 is steep if you don't. Better to join anyway, and accept that for £50 for the whole year, you'll never be lost for something to do at short notice when in London.
Membership will also get you into the traditional Victorian pantomime which runs over the Christmas season. This year's, Babes in the Wood features Robin Hood and his Merry Men.
For further information on the history of the Theatre and Victorian music hall, check out the Players' Theatre Unofficial Home Page, run by our intrepid author.
Andrew Denny, September 1997
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