Victorians Got Talent: Liverpool rekindles its love for music hall

Liverpool Playhouse was once home to mesmerists, acrobats and all sorts of variety acts. A new show, The Star, celebrates the artists who knew how to make the audience laugh, cry and sing along

In 2014, the playwright Michael Wynne wrote a warm-hearted family drama called Hope Place to celebrate the reopening of Liverpool’s much-loved Everyman theatre. It drew strongly on local history and touched on the Everyman’s previous incarnations as a dissenters’ chapel, a concert hall and a cinema. Wynne included a couple of songs drawing on the site’s brief use as a music hall, and at every performance he noticed that the crowd went mad for them.

One night, he turned to the Everyman and Playhouse’s artistic director, Gemma Bodinetz, and suggested a play about music hall, the art form that gave us enduring songs such as Don’t Dilly Dally and When Father Papered the Parlour and extraordinary acts including mesmerists, escapologists, canon acts, clog dancers, conjurors and acrobats.

The Star theatre – now the Liverpool Playhouse – in 1908.
The Star theatre in 1908. Photograph: Everyman Playhouse

Now, Wynne has done exactly that. Billed not as a play but “an entertainment”, The Star is a love letter to the music hall that opened 150 years ago on the site where the current Liverpool Playhouse stands. A beautiful star-shaped mosaic in the building’s disused box-office area is one of the few enduring reminders of this neglected part of the Playhouse’s history.

Under several owners from 1866 until 1898, when it became a theatre presenting drama, the Star – or the New Star as it was eventually called – was a successful music hall. In 1911, over lunch at the Adelphi hotel, it was sold for £28,000 to the Liverpool Repertory Company, and has been a leading regional theatre ever since. There is an irony to the fact that a place formerly home to Tyrolean facial artists, acrobatic posturers and equilibrists became, in the early 20th century, a temple of middle-class drama by Ibsen, Galsworthy and Barrie.

In an upstairs room at the Playhouse, director Philip Wilson and choreographer Cressida Carré are rehearsing a song and dance sequence. “We’ll run through it again, and then straight into the catapult act,” says Wilson. He smiles. “It’s not often as a contemporary theatre director that you get to say ‘and straight into the catapult act’.” The heyday of music hall passed over 100 years ago but Wilson believes that the songs are “in our DNA”. “You may not think you know a particular song but when you hear it, the tune and words come flooding back.”

Wilson thinks the songs’ longevity is due to the fact that they are so well constructed. “They are often catchy, very witty and have internal rhythms that would be the envy of Stephen Sondheim.” Wynne says that the songs that have survived were the creme de la creme.

“Thousands of songs were written in the music hall era, but only the best are remembered. That’s because the stars would try out a new song on a Monday and if the audience weren’t all singing along by Wednesday they would dump it. It was all about genuine interaction with the audience – giving them a good time.” He pauses. “Maybe that’s something theatre-makers need to think about today.”

The Playhouse, The Star
Danny O’Brien, Michael Starke and Helen Carter. Photograph: Dan Kenyon

Both Wilson and Wynne point to the fact that the music hall and variety tradition lives on in Saturday night TV entertainment, with shows such as Britain’s Got Talent. In the golden age of music hall stars like the cross-dressing Vesta Tilley, Dan Leno and Little Tich performed at a network of halls and theatres across the country from the Jarrow Palace of Varieties to the Leeds Tivoli, the Empire in Newcastle and the Gaiety in Edinburgh, the Alhambra in Nottingham, the Surrey Music Hall in Sheffield, and of course the Star in Liverpool.

An old programme from Liverpool’s Star.
An old programme from Liverpool’s Star. Photograph: Everyman Playhouse

Many earned lavish wages – at the height of her fame, Marie Lloyd commanded £1,000 a week. But lower down the bill there would be all-comers who – like many of those on BGT – had honed a specific talent, in some cases a very peculiar one. Dentalists performed aerial tricks while hanging from their teeth; water spouters – more fartistes than artistes – were very popular in the Victorian era.

There was, says Wilson, “a transgressive element to music hall acts, a cheeky innocence”. “Women dressed up as men and men pretended to be women. Some of the songs are very risque.”

Wynne’s play, which, in the Noises Off tradition, simultaneously charts both backstage and on-stage life, uses well-known music hall songs to push the action on, draws on the rivalry between performers and has a meta-theatre element (“But not in a wanky way,” he says). It plays to the Victorian tradition of melodrama: a mysterious villain skulks the wings and the Star’s future is in jeopardy as the cast try and save it by giving their all.

With 157 flying cues, hundreds of exits and entrances, 82 costumes, and silhouette sequences, the actual cast – all Liverpudlian actors, including former Brookside actor Michael Starke – have to give it their all as well.

“I’m thinking of it as a paid gym rather than a job,” says Eithne Browne drily. She plays Ellen, a character perhaps inspired by Florrie Forde, the music hall star whose most famous songs included Down at the Old Bull and Bush and It’s a Long Way to Tipperary. Wilson says it’s the only production he has ever had to storyboard, such is the complexity of its staging.

Eithne Browne in rehearsals.
‘It was all about genuine interaction with the audience’ … Eithne Browne in rehearsals. Photograph: Brian Roberts

“It’s not a history lesson. It’s not an homage or a pastiche. Michael has written a proper celebration of a form that knew how to make people laugh, sing along and cry,” says Wilson.

As the journalist WJ MacQueen-Pope observed in 1948: “It was entertainment of the people, by the people, for the people … It had no place for reticence; it was downright, it shouted, it made a noise, it enjoyed itself and it made the people enjoy themselves as well.” With The Star, the Playhouse returns to its rowdier, less well-behaved roots.

“Music hall knew how to entertain,” says Wilson. I see nothing wrong with being entertaining. Or in giving people a good time. If they buy a ticket, it’s the least we can aim to do.”


Lyn Gardner

The GuardianTramp

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