BRITAIN’S BEST RECRUITING SERGEANT Unicorn, SE1

MERRIMENT , MUSIC HALL, AND WAR

A while ago I wrote – see http://tinyurl.com/q53tp5p – about how well and honestly fringe and mainstream theatre had evoked the popular first world war experience, without mawkishness or grandeur. Now children’s theatre has a go, and I had a slight qualm about the subject. For Vesta Tilley, male-impersonating star of the music hall, was indeed a powerful recruiter of cannon-fodder in the early gung-ho days of 1914 and 15. You could take the King’s shilling in the very stalls. How honest could they be about what happened to those lads? And about how that artiste might have felt?

It works better than expected. A fragment of Iraq-war bulletin at the start – almost unheard amid the jangling piano tunes – reminds us that modern 8-year-olds (t recommended lower age) hear the news: wars and rumours of war are part of their awareness. Many came to see the poppies at the Tower. They have been made to know. But they also are at home with the idea of a determined child star (Tilley was four when she went on the halls, and drove her own career with fierce intention). And role models are hardly alien to them, twerking away to Rihanna. So this story, unfolding in straightforward language by Joy Wilkinson and directed by Lee Lyford, held for an hour a half-term matinee (some younger than 8). The children were visibly rapt; and only as distressed as any theatregoer must be, when the tale darkens.

Emily Wachter plays the child Tilley, one of twelve, a bossy tomboy diva emulating her father (Tom Espiner) with his raucous songs and “tramp’ persona, and deciding at the age of nine that it would be a better act if she dressed as a boy. Her first response to the war, later on, is interestingly done: “I can’t take the mickey out of young men now!” . So is the ambiguity of her part-idealistic, largely opportunisitc realization that marching around with a Lee-Enfield as a hero will not only please the War Office (short of soldiers) but keep her a star.

The four cast are nimble and versatile. `Mia Soteriu plays Vesta’s older self, sometimes narrating and at the very end telling how the story ended: in retirement, charity work, and a lifelong unease about the part she played. ‘It’s not my fault!” says young Vesta. And a technical coup de theatre at the end had the children gasping. It’s a simple piece, but it does as much in an hour as many longer ones.

box office 0207 645 0560 http://www.unicorntheatre.com to 15 March

Rating: three 3 Meece Rating

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