There is much in the world of performance that appears to be “on the comeback” from the inter-war period at the moment – cabaret and, pleasingly, burlesque are two notable examples – but one that is even older has not broken through is vaudeville. Fascinatingly, this form of theatre, most closely associated with our American cousins (although there are some local parallels with Britain’s own music hall tradition), used to have a really lousy opening act that no-one would mind missing if they got there late, and the headline would be the second to last act, with the “chaser”, the worst act of all, performing last – in order to “chase” the audience from the theatre so it could be readied for the next show, of which there could be as many as four a day.
American Vaudeville clearly seeks to commemorate this tradition, although it is not clear at all to what end. A two-man show, performed by the exceptionally energetic Jon Morris and Scott Nankivel, graduates of the Cirque du Soleil and the Theatre de la Jeune Lune, they do an excellent job of evoking the excitement of the vaudeville experience, with Nankivel playing the part of the show’s barker as we filed in and took our seats, warning us that anyone with peanuts would not be welcome in the audience. However, there is something a little meandering and hotch-potchy about the rest of the show which makes it feel disappointingly half-finished.
Played at full pelt, after some light-hearted banter between audience and Plunket Thunkit (the acrobatic Morris) and Chester Drawers (the lithe Nankivel), we are treated to the Chicken Man as the first act, a very poor act who pushes a huge egg through his legs while clucking, followed by some delicate silk-scarf catching, a “tightrope walk” around the edge of a tea chest, and some spoon playing. At this point, it is still not clear if this mundane entertainment is supposed to be enjoyed ironically or not – look how bad entertainment was and laugh at it – or genuinely supposed to be enjoyed on its own terms.
When next Thunkit and Drawers appear, we have slipped “backstage” to the world of the performers, concerned about how badly they are being treated by their employer “Sullivan” and longing to take their act onto the prestigious “Keith” circuit. As the show progresses, we see a further mixture of water-weak acts punctuated by skits around the ambitions of the two-man team. Apart from a mind-reading act that has a section of the audience in stitches, there is so little to the “entertainment” that is entertaining that the attempt to make these one-dimensional acts into three-dimensional people becomes its strongest suit. Alas, this feels terribly underexploited, an opportunity to make the vaudeville experience meaningful to a 21st century audience sadly lost.
I came with romantic images of 1920s America in my head earnestly wanting to enjoy the show. I have been to Ripley’s Believe it or Not! on Coney Island and wanted desperately to be transported back to a time when travelling circus acts and freakshows were du jour, ideally accompanied by a ragtime soundtrack. Perhaps my expectations of this small show were too high. But with such talent and passion on display from the performers, I hope they will untangle the knots in the show, discover what they really want to say and how to say it, finish what they’ve started and give us a show to be dazzled by that makes us truly commiserate with its hard-bitten performers, and lament its passing rather than applaud it.