Britain's Best Recruiting Sergeant

Joy Wilkinson

Unicorn Theatre

From 13 February 2015 to 15 March 2015

Review by Howard Loxton

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Britain's Best Recruiting Sergeant” was the nickname given to male impersonator Vesta Tilley when she toured the music halls singing songs in soldier guise encouraging chaps to join the ranks during the First World War.

Joy Wilkinson’s play, with which the Unicorn both marks the centenary of the First World War and 150 years since Vesta Tilley’s birth, packs into just one hour a potted biography of Vesta, a parade of popular music hall songs and a stark reminder of the realities of war set against the gung-ho patriotism of most of the numbers she sang.

The thundery rumble of cannon fire and a snatch of present day news bullet begin Joy Wilkinson’s play in the darkness before the lights go up on a music hall stage where Mia Soteriou, as the retired Lady de Frece, introduces the story of her life as Vesta Tilly.

It begins with four-year-old Matilda (Tilly) wanting to go on stage like her entertainer dad, if only to get away from their overcrowded kitchen and eleven-a-bed home.

Father Harry gets her a try-out on the same bill as himself and she is soon a successful child performer. When she finds newcomers pushing her out of her place as “the youngest”, she re-invents herself as a male impersonator and becomes a national favourite.

The story of her success is vividly presented with plenty of jaunty songs from her repertoire until the outbreak of the First World War has her rethinking her act, putting her characters in uniform.

In a wave of belligerent enthusiasm, this is a tremendous success, not least in encouraging recruitment. Tilly doesn’t think beyond her act, is too busy with her career to actually go off to entertain the troops she has sent to the front or to think what is happening to them until the truth is brought home to her.

If the young audiences for whom this show is intended have the same ignorance of the realities of war, they will share her journey of discovery. For everyone, the play raises questions of responsibility and rightness, the influence celebrity figures can have and how they handle that.

It is often deliciously comic. There is a splendid sequence sending up a silent move in which Tilly plays a British Tommy hero, his sweetheart, a German soldier and all the other roles in a tale in which the sweetheart goes to the front as a nurse, finds her Tommy wounded while carrying dispatches, disguises herself as a soldier and   bayoneting the enemy, riding galloping horses and a motor cycle to deliver them all in spirited mime.

That sequence parallels film footage that shows exploding shells and charging soldiers (ironically, I believe it's from a propaganda sequence shot in England, not actual battlefield footage) and, when the mood darkens, this is quite strong stuff for younger children. Though the theatricality of Lee Lyford’s production should reassure them that it is not for real, it can still be frightening.

Just four actors play all the roles—and take their turn at the piano too. Tom Espiner is Tilly’s father Harry Ball, a lovely dad and a stylish entertainer, and also plays theatre manager Walter Frece whom Tilly marries. Caleb Frederick is the young fan Algy who represents all those Tilly sent off to war and also music hall star and famous panto dame Dan Leno, paired with Emily Wachter’s Vesta Tilley in a sequence where they are both in drag.

With Mia Soteriou, they are all charismatic performers but, while skilfully playing to the house, they don’t call on sentiment. Wachter in particular, though clearly not a real tiny tot, may seem a kindred spirit to any child who longs to have the apparent freedom of a grown-up but there is a Brechtian avoidance of emotional identification that encourages a critical appraisal other actions from the audience.

There is a serious play here embedded in rich entertainment that is great fun but still asks questions.