The world’s oldest surviving music hall, built in 1858 by John Wilton behind his public house, Wilton’s does indeed ‘grace’ evocatively-named Graces Alley in London’s East End. Described in its heyday as the “handsomest room in town”, this welcoming auditorium boasts curving balustrades and barley-sugar columns.
Now Wilton’s hosts its first true music-hall show since 1880. Spanning the years between 1859 and 1922, it aims to chart the rise and fall of this celebratory and inclusive entertainment through the history of Wilton’s itself. It also weaves a story around fictional artistes familiar from their signature songs representing the types who sang point numbers there, presenting situations their audiences would recognise with glee. The show’s title comes from the aspirational story in the song “The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo”. Your night out at Wilton’s would also have included speciality acts such as acrobats and illusionists.
So tonight, Wilton’s presents for your delectation and delight, the ingénue, Daisy (charmingly naïve Miss Lulu Alexandra), the big-hearted broad, Ria (wonderfully warm and well-endowed Miss Suzie Chard), the original cross-dressing swell, Bertie (handsome, swaggering Miss Kali Hughes), the character cockney – or nasal northerner - George (deliciously lugubrious Mr David Morley Hale), the high-living masher, Champagne Charlie (devilishly dark and handsome Mr Mark Pearce) and the pathetic, yet sympathetic wimp, Joshua (appealing Mr Mike Sengelow).
These versatile performers double effectively to bring you among others, the prim and pious Salvation Army Officer and the mousy little wife, both effectively realised by Miss Hughes – and even the female grotesque, immortalised by Nellie Wallace, here impersonated by Mr Morley Hale. And indeed there are additional acrobatics and teasing trapeze and tight-rope tricks.
Jovial Chairman Mr Roy Weskin welcomes the audience, a smattering of whom have accepted the invitation to attend suitably attired, enticed by the prospect of seats at tables by the stage. This is no place for those who dread the words “audience participation”, for you’re positively required to join in with the choruses on your song sheet.
So a potentially rich mix is artfully - and alliteratively - arrayed here, with much enjoyment and information to be had from the evening’s entertainment. Almost thirty songs are happily harnessed to the narrative, from the well-known “Don’t Dilly Dally” to rare delights including Nellie Wallace’s sublime “Under the Bed”, sometimes joyfully juxtaposed like the breathlessly suggestive “Swing Me Higher, Obadiah”, and “The Man on the Flying Trapeze”. And there’s an exhilarating exchange of esoteric expressions, with a gratifying glossary in the programme (‘panum struck’for ‘hungry’ is my favourite).
Writer/director Angus Barr almost pulls off the feat of providing a night out in this handsomest of halls and telling its story by giving songs and singers a context. But in the end I was left panum struck for an entertainment that might recreate the immediacy of the music hall, for too often the storytelling is tentative and does not entirely engage.