Wilton's Music Hall, London E1
Opened 21 July, 2008

Wilton’s, the oldest surviving music hall in the world, is falling into decrepitude; one of the purposes of Angus Barr’s show is to drum up attention and funds for the cause of its preservation. Alas, little good is likely to be done by an assemblage of musical numbers and dramatic scenes as rickety as the most dangerous parts of the building.
Part of the problem may indeed be this atmosphere generated by the venue’s current condition. I have seen Victorian music-hall evenings in more dapper venues (most notably the Players’ Theatre beneath Charing Cross station, until its programming was modernised a few years ago) which worked because audience, material and space all seemed at one. Here, however, the space is largely unpainted, its bare floorboards surmounted by ad hoc seating, with performances on the stage at one end running the risk of vanishing into the void overhead. Barr may have deliberately shaped the material roughly in order to harmonise with the fabric of the place, but if so it was a bad choice, and if not, he and his multi-role-playing cast of seven need to work harder to make a connection. For those who are not already 100% on board for the music-hall experience will not be won over by this threadbare facsimile.
This is another awkward point. Music-hall, originally an entertainment for the working classes, is in its present-day revived form a plaything almost exclusively of the bourgeoisie, some of whom treat it as a kind of antique slumming and consider themselves licensed to be as loud as they imagine the proles were. It’s one of those odd situations in which people enjoying themselves can actually be a problem.
The cast’s energy is never in doubt. Roy Weskin, as master of ceremonies, shows utter dedication to leading us through the venue’s history: a fire in the 1870s, various legislation to tame the form’s excesses, the First World War, even its time as a mission hall. Mark Pearce’s enthusiasm for bad gags is almost disarming (almost), and Kali Hughes disports herself with vim whether on a flying trapeze or waving a Salvationist’s tambourine. But two and three-quarter hours, with two intervals, is far too long to spend not being won over. Even in such a tinderbox of a location, there is no spark.

 Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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