James travels back to 1904 for a bawdy musical hall romp that is more than meets the eye.
Musical hall legend Dan Leno (Chris Vincent) is not having a good time. He’s lost his funny and there’s the increasingly debilitating head pains. As his condition worsens he’s committed to an asylum under the care of vicious Miss Cornthwaite (Alwyne Taylor) on the belief that he’s mad and that he can be cured. But can there be a happy ending amongst the gruesome grips of Victorian psychological treatment? And what deeper truths lie within the walls of the doomed mad house?
Book writer, lyricist, and director Jonathan Kydd does a marvellous job of mixing unsavoury pathos with delightful smut resulting in something that is highly original and completely compelling. Leno’s story is presented as music hall fayre itself, complete with audience banter and participation. But it soon turns into a fractured, nightmarish pantomime as it tracks Leno’s tragic demise. Constantly brimming with uncomfortable irony, suspicious scenarios are dressed as bawdy innuendo, the maudlin is performed with high kicks and happy hands, and horror is punctured with punch lines. Nothing sits neatly in this musical and its nasty streak quickly becomes apparent. But rather than cause friction it adds to a morbid intrigue of the brooding and sinister narrative, and still prises a good deal of laughs from its audience.
Vincent is great as the aging music hall star. He manages to mix the high camp of his stage persona with the overt sense of conflict and vulnerability of his deteriorating personal life. Scared, broken, and resigned to his fate, he staggers around defeated but still spouting puns like a fretful walking shadow. However, it’s Taylor who steals the show. Her portrayal of the villain is deliciously sneering, malicious, and out rightly sadistic. She propels the character’s melodrama into a joyous cabaret, making her the highlight of the cast.
The show’s crowning glory however is that it hides a surprising and complex plot which starts to unravel in the second act beyond what was set to be the ordinary plot of the sorrows of historical malpractice. Outlandish drag suddenly becomes a harbinger of something much deeper as issues around gender and sexuality burst unsuspectedly in on the palaver. It’s this that marks out Kydd’s intelligence and theatrical muse.
Unfortunately, as fun as Street’s music is, it’s not particularly memorable – even though the songs and dance numbers are just as integral to the production as the lyrics and narrative. Also Alison Cartledge’s set makes it hard work to imagine both music hall and asylum, although making a good effort in the extremely limited space of the theatre itself. But at least there’s enough room for a talented company bristling with rapport and ability to do the footwork unhampered.
In this ingeniously twisted night of music hall macabre, nothing is what it seems. Tighten your corsets and hold onto your pineapples, you’re in for a treat.
The Hard Boiled Egg And The Wasp plays at the Giant Olive Theatre, London, NW5 2ED, until 10 June 2012. Tickets are £15 (concessions available). To book call 08444 771 000 or visit www.giantolive.com.
Featured image: The company. Photograph: Alastair Muir. Courtesy of Giant Olive Theatre.