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Marie Lloyd Stole My Life / Kemp’s Jig

by on 28 July 2019

Lives that were larger than life

Marie Lloyd Stole My Life

by J. J. Leppink

Kemp’s Jig

by Chris Harris

Blue Fire Theatre Company, Mary Wallace Theatre, Twickenham, 27 July 2019

A review by Celia Bard

Two historical plays about two well-known theatrical performers who lived three centuries apart: Nelly Power, a popular entertainer of the music hall in the 19th century, and Will Kemp, who worked alongside William Shakespeare in the 16th century. What, you may ask, do these two performers have in common, apart from their respective reputations as artistes?

Both were figures larger than life on and off the stage. They were innovative, fearless of authority, hugely talented, but suffered the humiliation of being eclipsed by contemporaries – in Nelly’s case by her young admirer, Marie Lloyd, who would bring flower posies to her dressing room, and in Will Kemp’s case by William Shakespeare, a writer and small-part actor for the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, a company in which they both held shares. In contrast, the final years of their lives ended very differently: Nelly died penniless in wretched conditions at the young age of 32, whereas Will Kemp died in relative wealth, having received an annuity of 40 shillings a year after his famous jig from London to Norwich, his ‘Nine Daies Wonder’.

KempNelly3

Born in 1854, Ellen Maria Langham started her theatrical career in pantomime at the age of eight. Three years later, she had become one of the top music hall performers in the country. Now she is best remembered for being usurped by the more famous Marie Lloyd, who took over both her acts and songs, and one song in particular: ‘The Boy I Love is Up in the Gallery’.

Charlotte Walker takes on the role of Nelly in Marie Lloyd Stole My Life. Charlotte gives an interesting interpretation of this character, not going for the full-throttle burlesque characterisation, but a much more reflective performance. The audience are shown Nelly’s vulnerability through Charlotte’s facial expression, especially her eyes, and tone of voice. Some of her most moving lines are those recounting a conversation she’d had with her agent, who asserts that Marie Lloyd, her protégé, was younger, prettier and did everything better than she did. This, Nelly flatly states, was true.

Contrasting her reflective monologue is when Charlotte as Nelly sings. Then the audience are transported into the music hall and witness the powerful presence of a star performer, an artiste who connects strongly with that audience, encourages them to sing along with her, which they do during this performance. Here, this reviewer felt that the spotlight could have been used to highlight all her songs, not just ‘The Boy I Love is Up in the Gallery’. This would have more sharply focused the difference between the starkness of her dressing room and her colourful, vibrant presence on the stage.

The stage is barren apart from a bottle of wine and a large costume trunk that Charlotte uses as a seat. This could be interpreted as a metaphor for aspects of Nelly’s life, but perhaps a little more to convey a dressing room, such as a screen over which are draped items of theatrical costume? Mention here should be made of the piano accompanist who displays an easy rapport with Charlotte. Just a pity (but quite understandable) that it was an electronic piano and not something more in keeping with the period.

Will Kemp is remembered as an English comedian and dancer, and an important member of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, acting in many of Shakespeare’s plays, including Dogberry in Much Ado About Nothing, possibly Launcelot Gobbo in The Merchant of Venice, Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and perhaps Falstaff. Apart from the latter, these are of course clown or fool figures, and as such an audience might expect either the depiction of a rustic character whose purpose is to evoke laughter through his ignorance, or that of the courtly fool or jester in whom low comedy is accompanied by wit.

In his time, Kemp was as famous for his often bawdy stage jigs as for his acting. According to accounts, Kemp infuriated Shakespeare by his love of improvisation, more often than not ruining the whole mood of the play. This leads to strong disagreement between actor and writer, and around 1599 Kempe sells his shares in the company and leaves. As a way of raising money he undertakes the remarkable feat of performing a Morris dance from London to Norwich over the course of nine days. He writes about this experience in Kemp’s nine daies wonder published in 1600, a pamphlet that underpins this monologue, Kemp being performed by the hugely talented actor Steve Taylor.

KempNelly2

The staging of this part of the production is imaginative and well considered. The 16th-century music, a map showing the places that Kemp passed through on his nine days’ jig and a chest containing a whole manner of props, including puppets, successfully sets the scene for Steve’s ‘jigging’ first appearance. His interpretation of Kemp’s boisterous character seems close to most accounts written during the time. Throughout his performance of some 45 minutes, Steve successfully entertains the audience with his jokes, mimicry – especially of Will Shakespeare and the stroking of his chin – dancing, puppetry, general tomfoolery and a constant reminder that Kemp is ‘spelt with a “p” at the end of his name and not an “e”,’ an aside denoting the author’s irritation with the confusion over the correct spelling.

This well-crafted monologue, depicting the different episodes of life on the road during Kemp’s nine days’ endurance test, provides a suitable vehicle to showcase the comedic skills of a talented performer such as Steve. The joyous expression on this actor’s face is a sight to behold on achieving his character’s ultimate goal and arriving in Norwich, transporting the audience back to his wonderful moment in time.

Both monologues give us a thoughtful insight into the lives of two hitherto lesser-known theatrical performers, as well as the social history of their times. The plays are now going to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. This reviewer wishes these two talented actors and their crews well, and hopes they enjoy good audiences.

Celia Bard
July 2019

Photography by Blue Fire

From → Drama, Music

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