David Morley Hale
After four years of reviewing theatre in London I had never been to Wiltons Music Hall, which shows just how off the beaten track it is. But though being a hidden gem is part of its charm, it is also contributing to its downfall. Wilton’s was once known as the ‘handsomest room in town’ but it is now half derelict and desperately in need of funds.
Once inside the world’s oldest surviving grand music hall you forget its crumbling exterior as you enter a magical, eerie, beguiling space, that lends itself to the art of storytelling and my stomach flipped in anticipation of Wink The Other Eye, an attempt to recreate a traditional music hall billing with all its variety acts and cabaret stars. However the vitality, humour and raucousness, that would have characterised this venue were missing and when I realised there would be two intervals my heart sank, such was the laboured and lumpen nature of the opening act.
Wink The Other Eye, loosely charts the trials and tribulations of music hall performer Daisy Belle, a cloying Lulu Alexander and her seduction at the hands of a cross-dressing dandy Burlington Bertie, played by Kali Hughes. Her loss of innocence and death, parallels the failing fortunes of the music hall and the cuckolding of Wilton himself, before the hall is burned down in a fire.
Written and directed by Angus Barr, he has his heart in the right place, but this is a clunky, overly didactic attempt to tell the story of this spectacular relic and makes it all too apparent why Victorian Music Hall died out and why its bawdy double entendre ditties, badinage, and variety acts were usurped by the more dynamic and polished cinema and theatre.
The play takes us through from the 1880s to 1920s, and there are shards of beauty and brilliance in the capturing of this bygone era, particularly in the use of shadow puppets to recreate the tight rope walking feats of The Great Blondin.
It is also rich in social history and reveals the various temperance, smoking and other licensing acts that beset the venue. Champagne Charlie, played with jubilant gusto by Mark Pearce, is endearing as this East End bon viveur. Suzy Chards tart with a heart, Ria has a heckuva voice, is ballsy, tough and more than a match for Kali Hughes’s singing, a victim of the venues acoustic no more so than in Burlington Bertie, which is delivered with neither panache or volume.
Roy Weskin, the mustachioed Master of Ceremonies tried earnestly to cajole the sedate crowd into a happy sing-along, but audience participation never breached lackluster.
I left the theatre disappointed and I could not help wondering how a company like Punchdrunk would have reanimated this incredible space and its major players. The RSC is taking up residency at Wilton’s in the autumn and hopefully this will bring a much needed fillip to its fortunes. For this is a vintage venue that deserves to play to a full house and to charm, fascinate, entertain, and deliver all the shock and awe that captivated its original audiences.