Wilton’s Music Hall is an unique survivor in London’s theatrical history.
Amazingly just a few streets away from Tower Hill Underground Station, and the Tower of London itself, hidden in a little dimly lit back street called Grace’s Alley, is an often-overlooked jewel of London ‘s theatrical history – Wilton’s Music Hall.
Dating back as far as 1743, it was first a pub and then improved and enlarged over the years. John Wilton bought the venue in 1850 and set about building his grand music hall which opened in 1859.
Sadly short-lived, the building changed owners in the 1870s and fell victim to a devastating fire in 1877. An eight-year reconstruction culminated in the building being acquired by the Methodist Church who created a Mission in the building, as such becoming an important community asset for the impoverished local communities. The Methodists left the building in the 1950s. As the whole area was scheduled for demolition in a widespread slum clearance, little hope was held out for its survival. However, a campaign was started to save the building with support from celebrities such as Sir John Betjeman, Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan. After much campaigning, Wilton’s was given the protection of Grade II* listed building status in April 1971 and was bought by the Greater London Council who preserved it until 1999.
Wilton’s reopened in 1997 as a theatrical venue, however it was practically derelict and in need of much work to bring it back from the brink. In June 2007 the World Monuments Fund added the building to its list of the world’s “100 most endangered sites”. Many grants, fundraisers and appeals later, the venue was preserved in what is now generally accepted as a state of arrested decay, with no artificial recreations of previous appearances.
As such, a visit to Wilton’s like walking into a time capsule. The attractive long and high hall with its candy-twist columns supporting a slender gallery is a joy to behold. And performances there are greatly enhanced with the ambiance of almost 150 years of history.
If you haven’t visited, I strongly suggest you do so. There are so many interesting corners, nooks and crannies to explore. The extensive programme of activities and performances is very varied and the building, now owned by a Trust, is lovingly cared for.
Anyone who wants to explore this unique survivor from top to bottom is heartily recommended to book a tour which you can do through the venue’s website.
There are two different tours- the first, a full historic tour of the building which you can book here
There is also a film tour which concentrates on the venue as it has often been used in film and TV since the seventies. You can book the film tour here
London is blessed with unrivalled architectural history, and when you discover this little jewel tucked away in an unprepossessing little side street, you’ll be hungry to share it with your friends too.
IN BRIEF Moments of silent-era skill delight in a loosely formatted show
Its rather hard to know what there is left to say
about Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel, which is perhaps why THE STRANGE TALE…
is an entertaining if rather rambling ride.
Using many conventions and devices first seen in
silent movies, the majority of the show’s timeframe is 1910, on the ocean crossing
from Britain to America, where, as the star (and star understudy) of legendary music
hall impresario Fred Karno, Chaplin and Jefferson (later Laurel) made their
names in America.
As one would expect with the show being presented
as part of the London Mime Festival, the speech is minimal, and title cards (as
used in silent films) are cannily employed , not just for speech but also to
set time and places. This is most helpful when the play’s timeline rambles
around from 1886 to 1973, often at a fast clip.
As writer and director Paul Hunter writes in the programme, “we set out to create a comically unreliable tribute to two extraordinary artists”. For an unreliable show, it uses the factual pieces to anchor the flights of fancy, but whether we learn anything new about them is another matter. The show is presented by Told By An Idiot (whose shows are always worth seeing) and Theatre Royal Plymouth.
From start to finish the show weaves a large number
of delightful visual gags into the show, building expectation and then subverting
it, inspired by the silent movies which made Charlie and then Stan both
Techniques such as title cards, blackouts, use of old sound effects equipment are charming links to the time being explored. This is underscored by the action being accompanied by an old upright piano (the accompaniment of choice for the silent films) to lend it a further authenticity, greatly helped by this one-week run in the faded Victorian glory of Wilton’s Music Hall. The accomplished pianist, Sara Alexander, plays not only the piano but other smaller parts including Chaplin’s mother with warmth and sincerity. It is also interesting to note that they have blended one of Chaplin’s own compositions, the popular “Smile”, into the show’s musical underscore.
It’s Chaplin who has the lion’s share of the stage time. From a backstory of poverty, mental illness and unsteady parentage, one realises that Charlie pretty much was on his own from an early age. The use of stage metaphors applied to his own story is rather charming and engaging. Chaplin is both self-contained and self-obsessed, to the exclusion of all others.
Laurel gets short shrift with no backstory, he
simply appears. Always very much second fiddle to Chaplin, his unflagging idolatry
comes through from start to finish.
The introduction of Oliver Hardy, undated and sketchy,
feels a bit like an afterthought and whilst occasionally amusing, doesn’t really
add much. The character never has time to step outside of cliché to make you
feel for him.
Nick Haverson makes an agreeably ratty Karno,
with his dodgy antics, and also does what little he can with Oliver Hardy’s
character as written, and several other characters.
Laurel, as played by Jerone Marsh-Reid is
physically expressive more than facially, and conveys his unwavering idolatry of
With small bends in time- the clog dance which
becomes a rap dance and back again- it may be that the show tries to connect to
younger audiences. However successful that may be, it is true that all the
performers work very hard in showcasing the material.
There are funny, sad and
touching moments dotted throughout the show, and although we leave not knowing
much more about the characters, perhaps we have a taste of their personal style
THE STRANGE TALE OF CHARLIE CHAPLIN AND STAN LAUREL plays Wilton’s Music Hall until Saturday 18th January, details here, and then tours.
Welcome to January’s show highlights. Here are my picks of the most interesting shows that you can find around London and the UK.
There’s little point in telling you about SpitLip’s hilarious, ingenious and melodious musical comedy OPERATION MINCEMEAT. That’s because its next run (from 4 to 11 January) has completely sold out. HOWEVER, the good news is that they have already scheduled a further run for 14-23 May at the same venue, and you can buy tickets now! I’m going again – and I promise you that I don’t revisit anything but the best.
The year is 1943 and the Brits are losing World War Two. Luckily, they’re about to gamble all our futures on a stolen corpse. Have the counter-intelligence services gone too far this time?
OPERATION MINCEMEAT is Singin’ in the Rain meets Strangers on a Train, Noel Fielding meets Noel Coward. Savour the fast-paced, hilarious and unbelievable true story of the twisted secret mission that won us World War II. The question is, how did a well-dressed corpse wrong-foot Hitler?
OPERATION MINCEMEAT has been nominated for ‘Best Ensemble in a New Production of a Play or Musical’ at the Broadway World Awards 2019 and for five Off West End Awards including Best New Musical, Best Company Ensemble, Best Set Design, Best Musical Director and Best Sound Design. The team also recently took home the prestigious Stage Debut Award for “Best Composer/Lyricist.”
May I just remind you all that I did say back last June that this had the potential to become a cult hit?….
RAGS THE MUSICAL plays from 9th January to 8th February at the Park Theatre in Finsbury Park.
Set in New York in 1910, with a score celebrating the multicultural music of opportunity, optimism and hope which was filling the streets then, RAGS The Musical tells the heart-warming and powerful tale of a group of Jewish immigrants as they arrive to start a new life in America. Carolyn Maitland(Ghost UK Tour) stars as Rebecca, leading UK musical theatre starDave Willetts plays Avram and Sam Attwater (EastEnders, Dancing on Ice) will star as Bronfman.
With a ravishing score by the songwriters of Wicked and Annie and the book-writer of Fiddler on the Roof, this is a sweeping saga of America’s immigrant past.
This is a transfer of the UK premiere of this eagerly anticipated new version which premiered at Manchester’s Hope Mill Theatre in February 2019 to much acclaim, produced by the prolific Katy Lipson and directed by Bronagh Lagan (Little Women, Putting It Together, Promises, Promises).
THE LONDON INTERNATIONAL MIME FESTIVAL brings a range of exciting shows to the capital, three of which have made it into my recommended list for January.
First, at Soho Theatre, Trygve Wakenshaw presents the world premiere of his show ONLY BONES v.1.4 from 7 to 25 January at the Soho Theatre.
‘Make a show with No story, No language, No set, No props, and only ONE light’.
Rubber-limbed Trygve Wakenshaw (seen previously at Soho with his very funny show A DIFFERENT PARTY) takes on the challenge set by fellow New Zealander, Thomas Monckton, creator of the original Only Bones (v1.0) described by The Times at LIMF17 as ‘spare but not slight… painfully hilarious’.
Trygve Wakenshaw’s Only Bones v1.4 raises a finger, as well as most other limbs, to the rule books and the people that write them. This is a hilarious new minimalist extravaganza. This is micro-physical comedy unlike anything you’ve seen (unless you’ve seen Thomas Monckton’s Only Bones v1.0)
In 1910 the unknown Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel set sail for New York as part of Fred Karno’s famous music hall troupe. On this journey, Charlie and Stan shared a cabin and then spent two years together touring North America, with Stan as Charlie’s understudy. Stan returned home, later finding success with his soulmate Oliver Hardy. Charlie developed his Little Tramp character and within five years became one of the most famous figures in the world.
In Charlie Chaplin’s highly detailed autobiography Stan Laurel is never mentioned. Stan talked about Charlie all his life.
Playing fast and loose with the facts and with an original piano score composed by Mercury Award Nominee Zoe Rahman played live each night, this is no nostalgic bio-drama, but a hilarious and deeply moving homage to two men who changed the world of comedy forever.
Touring the UK after this date, the venues can be found at Told By An Idiot’s website here
And thirdly, at The Barbican Centre from January 29 to February 1, renowned company Kiss and Cry present COLD BLOOD
Dancing hands star in elaborate miniature sets, the action filmed live to become epic as it fills a huge screen.
In this wonderfully whimsical production, the story of seven surprising deaths takes the audience into an array of scenarios that touch on the fleeting fragility of life. Watch as performers and crew conjure visuals onstage or simply succumb to the beautifully detailed kaleidoscopic vistas appearing on film. From the razzmatazz of a Fred and Ginger-style dance number to a floating figure in outer space, from a ravaged war-torn cityscape to the recreation of an iconic Boléro ballet.
Set to music including Ravel, David Bowie and Janis Joplin, COLD BLOOD brings together intricate hand choreography, tiny props, live cinema and a witty script. From Jaco Van Dormael and Michèle Anne De Mey – who co-directed Kiss & Cry here to much acclaim in 2017.
At The Bunker, a timely drama, THE PROCESS , runs from 11th January to 1st February.
Jo’s winning at life. Her business is going brilliantly. She’s Cost Positive. She’s even on the telly. She’s a Deaf woman turning the hearing world on its head. Until the system turns on her.
A malevolent bureaucracy, the rise of alt-right politics, and the human lives caught in the middle all ask: what happens if you believe ‘it’ll never happen to me’?
THE PROCESS is told in BSL and spoken English, and every show will be performed in a relaxed environment.
Dani is 17. She’s on the internet (of course), looking to meet someone honest and direct. What she finds is a man twice her age who thinks she’s an 11-year-old boy.
– I’m sorry I’m not the freak show you expected. – We’re on the same side of the bars I think.
This is the first major revival of THE SUGAR SYNDROME, the debut play from Lucy Prebble (A Very Expensive Poison, The Effect and ENRON): a devastatingly and disturbingly funny exploration of an unlikely friendship, our desire to connect, and the limits of empathy. Running at the Orange Tree, Richmond from January 24 to February 22.
At Theatre503, THE EDIT plays from January 7 to 11.
Five years ago Nick and Elena fell in love. Two years ago they fell out of it. They haven’t seen each other since. Until now.
It’s that meet up. The first time seeing the ex since the breakup. Something almost all of us have suffered through, whether or not by choice. Unfolding in real time, Nick and Elena try and work out where they went wrong so that they can both move on with their lives. The only question is whether they will do so together, or separately. After all, every love story deserves a second chance. Doesn’t it? Together they were glorious. Together they were a disaster. It just depends on how you see it.
Tender and funny, THE EDIT tests the limits of love, forgiveness and self-preservation. This is the London premiere of Sarah Gordon’s debut play following a UK tour last summer.
With timing that improves for every outing of this show, Sam Steiner’s YOU STUPID DARKNESS! is about the struggle for optimism and community amid the chaos of a collapsing world.
Everything’s been falling apart for a while now. In a cramped, crumbling office four volunteers spend a few hours every Tuesday night on the phone to strangers telling them everything is going to be OK. As the outside world disintegrates around them, Frances, Joey, Angie and Jon teeter on the edge of their own personal catastrophes. Their hopes and fears become entangled as they try, desperately, to connect with the callers and with each other. Playing at Southwark Playhouse from January 16 to February 22.
At the Tristan Bates Theatre from January 20-22, BROKEN ENGLISH is an intriguing-sounding show written by Emerging Artist award winner Jahmar Ngozi. BROKEN ENGLISH is a contemporary depiction of the journey of the English language using performance poetry, physical theatre and traditional drama to tell an original and engaging story. The show sets out to explore the dexterity of English as a form of culture as well as communication in a celebration of cultural diversity and creativity.
From 21 January to 8 February, the Omnibus Theatre in Clapham presents the World Premiere of THE GLASS WILL SHATTER by Joe Marsh.
Rebecca still has nightmares about Amina and the unnerving events that unfolded in her classroom. Or is it Amina that still has nightmares? Years later, one of them decides – it’s time to meet, again.
Through a series of gripping flashbacks to the school where Amina learned and Rebecca taught, an irreversible sequence of choices lead to an unexpected end, changing the course of both of their lives.
Thrilling and powerful, THE GLASS WILL SHATTER interrogates faith, belonging and polarisation within the school system – and the consequences of Prevent Policy on the quality of education in the UK today.
Althea Theatre is an award-winning international ensemble made of British and non-British actors and theatre makers based in London, exploring and addressing societal issues from both national and international viewpoints.
Lucy Kirkwood’s (Mosquitoes, Chimerica) new play THE WELKIN comes to the National Theatre from 15 January, directed by David Macdonald and starring Maxine Peake.
Rural Suffolk, 1759. As the country waits for Halley’s comet, Sally Poppy is sentenced to hang for a heinous murder. When she claims to be pregnant, a jury of 12 matrons are taken from their housework to decide whether she’s telling the truth, or simply trying to escape the noose.
With only midwife Lizzy Luke prepared to defend the girl, and a mob baying for blood outside, the matrons wrestle with their new authority, and the devil in their midst.
An interesting pair of shows played in repertory come to the Old Red Lion pub theatre from 7th January to 1st February. Both penned by (and featuring) Rosalind Blessed, LULLABIES FOR THE LOST and THE DELIGHTS OF DOGS AND THE PROBLEMS OF PEOPLE. LULLABIES looks at the struggles of modern mental health, exploring depression, social anxiety, childlessness, miscarriage, hoarding and eating disorders whilst remaining full of humour, understanding and ultimately hope. DELIGHTS looks at love gone wrong through the lens of a disintegrating relationship, when trying to identify hero and villain is not as easy as it may first seem.
The VAULT FESTIVAL 2020 starts on 28 January and runs until 22 March. London’s largest and most interesting festival of upcoming work and rising artists, it’s like having all the fun of going to the Edinburgh Fringe but without the pricey travel and accommodation. Established in 2014 by Tim Wilson, Mat Burtcher and Andy George, it has rapidly grown to be an integral part of London’s winter scene. Last year 80,000 people enjoyed over 420 performances, which is why this is a festival with something for everyone.
Off West End – Last Chance
ENDING JANUARY 4th The perfect New Year theatre treat for adults is at the new Boulevard Theatre. GHOST QUARTET is a dizzying, intoxicating musical of love, loss and spirits – of both the spectral and alcoholic kind. Three-time Tony Award-nominee Dave Malloy’s hauntingly beautiful song cycle is a story about stories themselves; how we tell them, how we hear them, and how they evolve, intertwine and draw us in. With a standout cast including Carly Bawden and Zubin Varla this is a must-see show, especially after the triumph of Malloy’s other show, the excellent PRELUDES which played at Southwark Playhouse in October.
But back to GHOST QUARTET. Rose has a problem. She’s been betrayed by her lover, a local tree-dwelling astronomer, with her very own sister. Rose seeks vengeance and a passing bear might just offer the answer. But his services come at a price: a pot of honey, one piece of stardust, a secret baptism – and a photo of a ghost.
A kaleidoscopic journey spanning continents, centuries and the cosmos ensues. But even through the fogs of time and a haze of whiskey, Rose can’t shake the feeling that she’s done this all before…
Dave Malloy is the writer of the Broadway smash-hit Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812. GHOST QUARTET runs until January 4th. Sit back and enjoy….
ENDING JANUARY 5thCIRCUS 1903 is an utterly delightful throwback to the glory days of the circus when skilled and brave artists risked life and limb to bring us thrills as they spun high in the air, juggled with impossible numbers of clubs, contorted themselves into unbelievable shapes and generally made the near-impossible happen right before our eyes.
Held together by a very accomplished ringmaster who has the showman’s gift of a pinch of cynicism and a pound of heart, he marshals the interludes between the acts with audience participation from some of the smaller audience members, who are all as delighted and excited as the older kids in the room. The icing on the cake is the appearance of the life-size elephant puppets from the people who brought us WAR HORSE, who once again make us believe totally in the grace and personality of these brilliantly brought to life creations.
This is a terrific show for all the family which lets you remember what it was like to be a kid and sit in wonder. Well worth a trip!
“You remember every packet of crisps you’ve eaten, then?”
A couple peer into an estate agent’s window; two sports fans have a heart-to-heart in the loo; a daughter has questions about her mother’s love life; and as a father helps his son tie his football boots, he realises they are growing apart. If you keep your eyes and ears open, there are a million tiny plays happening every day.
Originally published in The Guardian, this collage of scenes now form a hugely entertaining and addictive evening in the theatre. It will change the way you listen to the world around you, and train journeys will never be the same again.
ENDING JANUARY 18th The ever-reliable Orange Tree in Richmond caps a remarkable year of must-see shows with Paul Miller’s perceptive and human revival of Bernard Shaw’s play CANDIDA. If you enjoy well-crafted drama expertly presented, this is a real theatre treat.
Eugene believes in love, free-thinking and liberation: James in social justice for all and conventional married life for himself. Candida believes in her own strength and her right to run her life as she wants.
A young man with the soul of a poet clashes with a popular Socialist preacher and threatens his domestic happiness. Only Candida can decide who is the stronger – and who’s to be the winner.
With a superb cast, spare but effective design and Miller’s warm and bright direction, CANDIDA is unmissable. It plays at the Orange Tree, extended until January 18th.
ENDING JANUARY 18th A World Premiere written and directed by Olivier Award-winning director Bijan Sheibani (Barber Shop Chronicles, The Brothers Size), THE ARRIVAL plays the Bush Theatre.
“I’ve spent so much of my life wondering…passing people on the street… and now, yeah… you’re here”.
When Tom and Samad meet for
the first time, they are stunned by the similarities they share. In spite of
Tom’s adoption and all the years spent apart, the two brothers are joined by an
undeniable biological bond.
But as they become closer and their lives entangle, they realise that finding each other comes at a price. THE ARRIVAL is a taut family drama about obsession, betrayal and the human need to belong.
ENDING JANUARY 19th For young theatregoers aged 3 or over, the perfect treat is a tiger. Not just any old tiger, though. THE TIGER WHO CAME TO TEA is an hour’s worth of jolly fun, song and dance with all the characters from Judith Kerr’s much-loved book transferred to the stage through the skilled pen of master storyteller David Wood. As an adult, I loved seeing and hearing the children’s reactions to the story and almost felt like a kid myself again. Heck, I even joined in the Tiger Dance! If you haven’t seen it, go; and if you have seen it, find some kids to take again! The Olivier Award-nominated show plays daytimes until January 19th at the Theatre Royal Haymarket in the West End.
ENDING JANUARY 23rd FAIRVIEW by Jackie Sibblies Drury won both the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize for female playwrights.
It’s Grandma’s birthday and the Frasier family have gathered to celebrate. Beverly just wants everything to run smoothly, but Tyrone has missed his flight, Keisha is freaking out about college and Grandma has locked herself in the bathroom. But what else is wrong with this picture?…..
An interrogation of our subtly destructive preconceptions, FAIRVIEW plays at the Young Vic an extended season to 23 January following a sell-out run in New York.
ENDING FEBRUARY 1stC’est Magnifique! Achieving the near-impossible task of translating a unique French movie to the stage, and doing so in some style, this AMELIE will bring a smile to your lips and warmth to your heart, as we follow our heroine helping others but finding it hardest to help herself. With a tuneful score and dynamic Audrey Brisson as Amelie, this is your passport to joie de vivre. Playing a season at The Other Palace Theatre in London to February 1st.
If you’re looking for a fluffy, light musical confection then float along to the Menier Chocolate Factory where THE BOY FRIEND, Sandy Wilson’s all-singing all-dancing love letter to 1920s musical comedies has its first major London revival in over 10 years. Set in Madame Dubonnet’s finishing school in the south of France, the school’s perfect young ladies burst into song at the drop of a cloche hat, and forbidden boy friends are forever popping through the French windows to gaily sing and dance with them. Since its premiere in 1953, it has become one of the most beloved British musicals of all time.
The production sees Matthew White renew his collaboration with the Menier – where he previously directed SHE LOVES ME, CANDIDE, and SWEET CHARITY. Reuniting Olivier- winning choreographer Bill Deamer with White from their stunning Olivier Award-winning TOP HAT, this will be a treat – you can check your cares at the door and just relax. Enjoy! The show runs to 7 March.
Positively laden with glowing five- and four- star reviews, Jerry Herman’s classic musical MAME is back- and how! When young Patrick goes to stay with his Auntie Mame, he walks into a fast-living world of fun and and joy. It will be a real treat to see two-time Olivier-winner Tracie Bennett (Follies) as Mame, with Darren Day and Harriet Thorpe (Absolutely Fabulous) (as Mame’s “old, old, old friend” Vera Charles). Get set for some high-octane musical fun! The celebrated score includes the rousing title number, plus “Open a New Window,” “If He Walked into My Life,” “We Need a Little Christmas,” “Bosom Buddies” and “That’s How Young I Feel.” Good to see that rising star producer Katy Lipson -who has now made so many excellent smaller-scale musicals – is starting to move into the bigger shows. Congratulations to everyone involved! The show visits Northampton from 7-11 January and Salisbury from 21-26 January. Hurry! It’s your last chance!
Touring the UK
Anyone who loves the Latin crossover music of Gloria Estefan will enjoy ON YOUR FEET! It has had mixed but mostly positive reviews, unanimous in the musical content of the show. It looks good and sounds just great, with a brilliant band (worth the price of admission alone) who never let the energy flag.
Featuring 26 hits, this Tony Award nominated show ran on Broadway for two years, for over 750 performances. ON YOUR FEET!is the inspiring true love story of Emilio and Gloria Estefan and charts their journey from Cuba to the streets of Miami and finally to international superstardom. Featuring some of the most iconic pop songs of the era, including “Rhythm is Gonna Get You”, “Conga”, “Get On Your Feet”, “Don’t Want To Lose You Now” and “1-2-3” and many more.
ON YOUR FEET! is directed by two-time Tony Award® winner Jerry Mitchell (Kinky Boots, Legally Blonde), with choreography by Olivier Award-winner Sergio Trujillo (Jersey Boys) and book by Academy Award® winner Alexander Dinelaris (Birdman). See it in January at Canterbury and continuing to tour into May.
January brings numerous encore screenings of two NTLive broadcasts to screens around the UK and further afield. You can still enjoy Andrew Scott in Noel Coward’s PRESENT LAUGHTER, the comedy hit ONE MAN, TWO GUVNORS with James Corden, and FLEABAG, HANSARD and SMALL ISLAND also appear in selected encore screenings.
To find screenings in your area, check out the schedule of NT Live website, details here.