The Hard Boiled Egg and the Wasp

Book and Lyrics by Jonathan Kydd Music by Andy Street
Lion and Unicorn Theatre
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This is a musical about Dan Leno, that great Music Hall star and pantomime dame who died in October 1904. What did actually happen to him in his last months before dying aged only 43? Certainly he seems to have gone a bit doolally in 1903 and for a time was confined to an asylum in Camberwell.

This musical isn’t quite what you might expect, for its creators have come up with their own version of the story, only parts of which are firmly founded in fact. As you might guess, it has been given a musical hall flavour, not least in its construction like a series of music hall numbers with a Chairman in charge to link the story which sometimes looks backwards but largely presents what could have happened at Camberwell, though it is strictly fiction.

The chairman gets things started with an opening number for the whole company, a chorus that sets things up nicely singing about “An Evening at the Music Hall”. Red drapes and a swagged border cut across the playing space to suggest a variety stage, a gauze can be drawn to hide the band and the whole show is played as full out front performance with a cast that manage to make themselves look like Victorian grotesques.

Especially striking are Alwyne Taylor’s horsey Miss Cornthwaite, who runs the asylum, long-faced Richard Foster-King as a lugubrious-looking collection of mad men and Philip Herbert as bulldog-faced but caring lobotomised Dawlish, the asylum assistant. Callum Coates is Dr Sweetman, incompetent lobotimiser, and Sarah Earnshaw is recovered lunatic Miss Proudfoot whom predatory Cornthwaite has made her protégé.

The theatre folk include Mrs Leno (Claire Marlowe, who also plays another performer with whom Dan had a fling) and Paul Matania as the new rising star George Robey, who is now Mrs Leno’s new partner; as well as the songs that grow from the story, we get an example of Robey as performer and from Leno the title song “The Hard Boiled Egg and the Wasp”, which he sang at the Lane in 1903’s Mother Goose panto. But all the songs, not just these, have a music hall feeling whether comic patter numbers or ballads delivered with operatic fervour by Miss Cornthwaite.

Chris Vincent’s Dan Leno stands somewhat higher than the diminutive original but he plays him as the little man, innocent and engaging, and we get only one glimpse of the violence that in his latter years sometimes followed his drinking. We first meet him in wig and shawl in character as one of his poor hard-working women, when he breaks down mid-performance.

Though the spirit of music hall is there throughout, this is not a show that attempts to recreate his act (though Vincent might be someone who could do it) and we certainly see nothing of the great clog dancer. Apart from the music hall brio, the interest of this show lies in its invention, exploring the effects of cross dressing and homing in on gender confusion, though the idea that Leno buggered up his life, quite literally is perhaps a fiction too far.

According to a report in the Daily Telegraph, in July 1903 at the asylum, his real physician, Dr Savage, treated him with "peace and quiet and a little water colouring” and he seems to have made a recovery from a mental illness which some say was the result of syphilis, some a brain tumour and which Leno himself said had been brought on by a fall from a bicycle. Instead we are off into the realms of comic grand guignol, despite Miss Proudfoot's discovery of Freud’s theories.

This is a show that is savagely funny but it needs a house that is warm and responsive. Richard Albrecht’s Chairman had a struggle raising audience fervour the night that I saw it and that undermined his confidence and timing. That didn’t stop me enjoying it and with the right house this could take off, for it is played with panache by the whole company. If you have an ear for bouncy tunes played by a great band and strongly sung plus an ever so slightly warped sense of humour, you should enjoy this subversive romp.

Howard Loxton