Christmas traditions can pull you back into memories of your favorite childhood outings, gooey or punchy. MetroStage has delivered a seasonal British music hall with more punch than goo. Even the lobby has been turned into a kind of olde London pub with appropriate grub and adult beverages. Stoked with “crisps,” and a pint, we enter the theater well on your way to joining a tradition of escapist musical entertainment, popular since Edwardian times.
Music hall is a long-standing form of popular British entertainment happily low-brow, something akin to American vaudeville and early burlesque that combines monologues, comic routines, drinking songs and silly sketches and other numbers that often get the audience to join in.
I confess with relish my childhood winter memories are full of London music hall and “pantos” (pantomime musicals) so I was keen on getting in on this recreation. I had missed Catherine Flye’s Christmas at the Old Bull & Bush when it was a Christmas staple at the Old Vat at Arena Stage for several years.
There are many things I’d like to recommend to lovers of this tradition. First, Flye and Company have done a bang-up job getting the Cockney accents right. We Anglophiles are snobby about that. (Even Michael Kahn’s Shakespeare Theatre downtown can’t always boast the same.)
The musical numbers are authentic, and many are as silly as hell. They’re also, as is the tradition, liberally sprinkled with sexual innuendo. I confess that in these troubled times we live in, there were a few moments I winced, taken out of the show, realizing how relentlessly over the line into sexual harassment this industry has been historically loaded. When Tracey Stephens as Miss Florrie Ford, the proprietress of the tavern, swings around the stage with a basket fruits, slapping wrists and repeating the line, “Please don’t touch me’ plums,” you remind yourself the predators are still out there prominently in our land as well as they were in merry olde England.
Tracey Stephens who plays Miss Florrie Ford, is a born comedienne and delivers song and chat with spunk and brio. She gets the evening and the crowd going, setting the scene with the title song then rolling into “Hello, Hello, Who’s Your Lady Friend.”
Albert Coia nails the character and style of Mr. Bertie Ramsbottom, peppering all with a light touch. This elfin singer-actor feels makes me believe he’s been lifted right out of a previous century. He has only to blink innocently and one wants to roar with laughter. How the man can make a song like “Me’ Little Yo-yo” work – the story of a man whose yo-yo others seem to want to fondle and then has to face his wife that it has been played with so often it’s now missing its “yo” — is a bleedin’ miracle. Well, you get the gist.
Bob MacDonald, a singer with a formidable voice, delivered some of the more serious and ambitious numbers. He sang Kipling’s “On the Road to Mandalay” with ramrod colonial authority and made it stirring. His work reminded me of someone who is loyal to his tribe and will go on singing of the illusive luster of a world long gone.
Katherine Riddle is most pleasing as the ingénue of the evening. She has a very fast vibrato in her soprano range that seems appropriately period. She plays gratifyingly straight as everyone’s little darling.
Special mention must be given to the surprise performance of the evening on opening night. In a nod to the well-beloved Christmas tale of Scrooge and his redemption, the evening gives us a Dickensian slice in re-creating the Bob Cratchit family scene. Asking from the stage for a Tiny Tim, Tracey Stephens plucked from the audience a man who looked much less waif-like than the original. Upon being asked his name, we learned it was indeed “Tim.” In fact it was our own Tim Treanor, six-feet-some and still growing, who threw himself into pantomiming the character and delivered his line right on cue with convincing splendor, “God bless us everyone!” (Ford’s Theatre, take notice.)
The 1912-stated setting is a bit of a mash, but there is a skillful arc in devising the evening’s entertainment from the simple pleasures such as the American borrowed “Bicycle Built for Two” to the most moving part of the evening when we were literally taken into the trenches of World War I. MacDonald delivered a heartbreaking rendition about a Christmas spent in the trenches in 1914 when the British and German soldiers took a break from war and met in the no-man’s-land between where the two armies dug in. The soldiers realized, as people often have before and since, that these enemy combatants have more in common than they’ve been sold by the higher-ups who have sent them off to fight. It’s hard to believe that next year will be the hundredth anniversary of the end of the war to end all wars.
Christmas at the Old Bull & Bush
closes December 24, 2017
Details and tickets
Catherine Flye has directed the evening’s entertainment admirably. She’s done justice to the form by including old favorites such as “Knees Up Mother Brown” and “Doing the Lambeth Walk.”
The show is inevitably creaky at times. Some things don’t translate happily. Flye has a turn as a woman who’s getting too long in the tooth to play a Fairy. “Nobody Loves a Fairy” is of course a dig at the dusty village pantos cast by amateurs. But it feels more than a little sad, or maybe it’s that my wand too is beginning to droop. Later, her monologue about a Kindergarten teacher rehearsing a Nativity pageant goes on a little long for modern taste.
Some of the banter between the Chairman (Brian O’Connor) and Mr. Charles Archibald Potts (Peter Boyer) feels as if it’s there intentionally to expose lame Benny Hill jokes. There’s a whacky ventriloquism act, a total throwback. Some of this feels like filler, and one wants someone backstage to get changed and show a little leg or something. Maybe it’s a cue to order another pint.
But generosity is at the heart of the evening, and “so should all of us.” Joseph Walsh as Maestro Peabody tinkles the keys and pulls us to order. Rallying the audience, he beams at us with genuine pleasure and gets us to sing seasonal favorites with gusto and then go back out into the cold well-fortified.
Christmas at the Old Bull & Bush. Written and Directed by Catherine Flye. Set Design by Carl Gudenius. Light Design by Alex F. Keen. Costume Design by Michael Sharp. Sound Engineer by William Wacker. With Peter Boyer, Albert Coia, Catherine Flye, Bob Macdonald, Brian O’Connor, Katherine Riddle, Tracey Stephens, and Joseph Walsh. Produced by MetroStage. Reviewed by Susan Galbraith