Patter doesn’t last the way photos or songbooks or well-laid foundation stones do, so whatever wit Vesta Tilley’s music hall fame rested on has to be carefully reconstructed from little shards left in a telling lyric here, a letter there. Her story makes an unlikely but resoundingly successful family show, her ephemeral stage charms found on the trail of her fascinating journey from four-year-old stage tot to child opera singer impersonator to full grown woman, dressing as fops and Tommies for a living.
It’s funny to think that Vesta Tilley was allowed to stride about the stage slapping her thighs in a world where women couldn’t even vote: but just as lesbianism couldn’t be banned in case women cottoned on that it existed, any kind of either sexual or social usurpation of a man’s role was seen as largely unimaginable outside the musical hall.
The four actors form a finely-tuned ensemble that flows between the characters Tilley meets in her 50 year career, and takes turns thumping out tunes on the old joanna. The older Vesta, stately in velvet and pearls, tells the picaresque story of her crop-haired girlish younger self. It’s a good one. She’s born into Dickensian infancy as one of 11 children all piled into one bed and supported by their father Harry Ball and his “tramp musician” music hall act. Then she begs her father to let her perform, and the two set off touring the provincial theatres. Her signature turn, mimicking the pretensions of young fops and swells in top hat and tails, was well worn by the time she reached ten. And she kept on working it for another forty-odd years, touring America, making a silent film, and becoming “Britain’s Best Recruiting Sergeant” with her patriotic Tommy act. Emily Wachter’s steely performance emphasises Vesta’s obsession with being and staying this “Best”: the snippets of her songs are feeble compared to the determination which drove her to punt them round the halls almost from the cradle. But there’s a vulnerability which breaks through, too, as she writes to soldier Algy: Caleb Frederick’s puppyish devotion never strays into sentimental biscuit tin territory. And as Dan Leno, he and Wachter are a riotous cross-dressing double act, swapping bloomers and slapping on panstick backstage.
It’s an adults’ story, told for children: a refreshing reversal worthy of the “dark fairytales”which sell children’s stories to adults. Director Lee Lyford’s elegant magic doesn’t hold back from grimmer transformations, either. The young, fiercely patriotic wartime Vesta is baffled to be confronted with the wealthy widow she became: Lady de Frece, swanning comfortably about the casinos of interwar Monte Carlo. The widow in turn is horrified by the sight of a grisly apparition, a realer version of her music hall parody of a wounded soldier swain.
Writer Joy Wilkinson bends or elides a few facts here – the real Vesta was 50 when WW1 broke out, but is played a good few decades younger. She performed in hospitals, rather than escaping the horrors of war entirely. Dressed as a wounded soldier, her song “I’ve got a bit of a Blighty one” was notorious for satirising the soldiers’ desperate attempts to be sent home from the trenches.
But refreshingly for a work adapted for children, her choices make Tilley’s story richer, rather than thinner. She’s a childish show-off first, then a way for children to worm their way into the rotten core of the First World War, clinging to her charismatic coat-tails. The result isn’t the easy songbook the title might suggest, but the discordant reality is far more exciting.