So, full disclosure: I am kind of a history nerd. Which is why I was delighted to see that Old Time British Music Hall is an attempt to recreate the principal form of working-class entertainment in pre-TV-and-radio Britain for a modern audience.
If you were part of the downstairs staff on Downton Abbey, this is supposed to be the sort of thing you’d see on your days off. Appropriately, the cast was dressed in summery white-and-pastel Edwardian getups, and a few paragraphs in the program describe the history of British music halls.
The show is produced by The British Players, a group that was founded in the 60’s by a group of British Embassy staffers, and now has a permanent home in Kensington, MD. Old Time Music Hall is an annual British Players production. The Fringe show is an adaptation of their 49th anniversary Music Hall show, which ran in Kensington in June.
There was a lot more grey hair in both the cast and audience than at a typical Fringe show, but I appreciate the attempt to bring the show to a broader audience. I had the impression that a good portion of the audience were British Players regulars. This turned out to be a good thing, though–the audience was invited to sing along, and without those who were accustomed to music hall audience participation, the whole audience probably would have been silent.
Old Time British Music Hall
Conceived by Malcolm Edwards and Albert Coia
at Studio Theatre – Stage 4
1501 14th Street NW
Washington, DC, 20005
Details and tickets
The show began with a “warm-up,” in which the cast led the audience in a sing-along of a few old-fashioned tunes, like “Daisy, Daisy, Give Me Your Answer, Do” and “Roll Out the Barrel.” (Fortunately, lyrics were included with the program.) The rest of the show was made up of a selection of authentic British music hall shows from the time period. Most enjoyable were Albert Coia’s comical antics in “Yoyo” and “A Bachelor’s Folly,” as well as “Career Options,” a slapstick ensemble piece about alternatives to the actor’s life. Bill Karukas was also very convincing as a British army captain in “Captain Ginger,” but the song was full of British-isms that may have been lost on me.
The impact of the show was of jolly, harmless fun. The show materials claim that it’s not appropriate for children, but even including a few songs relying on double entendres for their humo(u)r and a tongue-twisting ditty about a “pheasant plucker,” there’s not much that goes beyond a solid PG-rating.
Some of the jokes were a little stale–Mr. Chairman, the MC for the show (Malcolm Edwards) began with a George-W.-Bush-Is-Stupid joke that I first heard back somewhere around 2002. Still, the actors were charming, and very talented and comfortable in their roles.
Overall, this show is an exercise in nostalgia. There’s nothing groundbreaking here, but it was sweet and well-performed.