Britain's Best Recruiting Sergeant
Time Out says
This rousing music hall-style kids' play about a First World War entertainer raises some important questions.
Children of Britain: Do Your Duty. The Unicorn Needs You! Actually, no: You Need The Unicorn.
The latest main stage offering at London’s best and most uncompromising kids’ theatre shows exactly why. Joy Wilkinson’s ode to the golden age of music hall actually turns out to be a training ground for young audiences (aged eight-plus). What seems, at first, a dinky celebration of Victoriana turns into something quietly excoriating and ethically-charged: a call to watch what’s going on behind your art.
Vesta Tilly (Emily Wachter) was the best male impersonator of her day and Wilkinson tells her life story – from child star to dug-out pin-up – with a series of variety turns. These numbers – ‘Daisy, Daisy’; ‘I’m Henry VIII, I Am, I Am’; ‘Burlington Bertie’ – give the piece real charm and the seductiveness of the stage shines through. ‘You can be anything you want onstage,’ Tilly’s told. It wins us over, then interrogates that victory.
Crucially, though, Wilkinson never lets you lose sight of the context. Vesta’s star goes up. Her salary rises and she becomes a bill-topping attraction. When the First World War breaks out, she spots an opportunity: singing young men into signing up.
Suddenly, aesthetic questions proliferate: does art have a responsibility tell the truth? Or should it seek to comfort? If so, comfort whom? The country at large? Or men and women fighting on the front-line? Wilkinson asks whom we should make our heroes and whether art can ever really be brave.
Lee Lyford’s production can feel rudimentary in places and lacks the raucous ebullience of music hall, but abrupt jumps from the stage to the Western front are both chilling and poignant, while Wachter takes Tilly from ingenue to conflicted superstar with real heart.