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
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