Brighton Fringe 2017
Alison Child’s lightly fictive account of a mother/son research duo delves into and develops a show on a post-Edwardian and wartime double act: Basil Hallam and Elsie Janis. This Behind the Lines production is directed by Rosie Wakley with technical assistance from Katy Brecht this is an excellent use of video, including singalong cues and plangent photos. And we’re treated to rap interludes created for the show by Louie Le Vack: a snug fit against Edwardian music hall.
Not so much another First War narrative but a parallel rediscovery of singalong music, song and dance, stars and tears in their eyes. Alison Child’s an emerging dramatist from the Royal Court scheme, and this lightly fictive account of a mother/son research duo delves into and develops a show on a post-Edwardian and wartime double act: Basil Hallam and Elsie Janis. This Behind the Lines production is directed by Rosie Wakley with technical assistance from Katy Brecht this is an excellent use of video, including singalong cues and plangent photos. And we’re treated to rap music interludes created for the show by Louie Le Vack. It’s a pretty snug fit against Edwardian music hall.
We’re hurled from a video with inset of mother Sue (Alison chid) badgering reluctant son Jack (Harry Child) out of his NEET (Not in Employment Education or Training) stupor full of Call of Duty wargames to join her in a research project on the lives and careers of the two stars who obsess her. It’s clear the highly-educated Sue has provoked a backlash in her son, who mildly resents her gay lifestyle and friends after the end of her marriage, and bucks against being buckled into jacket tails and top hat.
His transformation into the privileged Basil Hallam and Sue into Ohio-born Elsie Janis – promised girlfriends for this role don’t materialise – shifts from blokey Brighton Mockney to a ghostly elegance, which strengthens. The Hallam narrative Gilbert the Filbert is the Edwardian dandy, insouciant, blasé, confident of sexual conquest. He’s the Nut with a K – ‘Knut’s a byword for elegance though it’s Danish, curiously woven into musical hall.
I first came across it voice-recording the diaries of an old friend Leo Wheeler a First War pilot, recounting his life after he was shot down by Richtofen’s circus in 1917. ‘Quite the Knut’ he recalled and in 1978 I only grasped through context. ‘Nut with a K’ he explained affably. What? The Knut’s dressiness filtered the Filbert to a German POW camp I was told. Jack quips ‘K for Ketamine’ too and we get a blast of rap – it’s refreshing when Hallam’s world is striated with the music of a century on but underlines affinities: flaneurs and wit.
Jack initially provides a non-online Apprentice-style summary of Hallam at his mother’s behest. He draws identifying parallels, photos of both in football garb, choirs, singers (this is where of course the real Harry Childs is in no way a NEET). It’s neatly apposite video footage. Jack’s in no way entirely seduced yet. His Fall of Duty however ripples meanings throughout this cleverly-realised narrative.
The double act Hallam performed with Elsie Janis an American born a month before him (in 1889) came about through this pushy-but-warm star – who survived her own mother’s pushiness – saw in Hallam a perfect double-act. Gay herself, she joked with Hallam that more girls came to the stage door for her, not him. It’s one of those side-lights flickering tolerance in some millieux we don’t celebrate enough.
This is where Alison Child’s relaying information briefly becomes a lecture. Hallam’s is interrupted with twitting of mother and son; badinage undercuts info with chirpy parallels.
The war changed everything, Janis risking everything to come and entertain troops on the very Lusitania later notoriously sunk with 1200 dead, but Hallam despite a steel plate in his foot was turned down for service. With a regular military elder brother winning DSOs he knew he didn’t fit. However after enough white feathers and hate mail, he maanged to make the Royal Flying Corps and perilous balloons.
We’ve seen these aerial shots before, Sue trying to make Jack see the beauty of the earth or aerial shots of World War One. Jack heads off after a series of girls (all Lara, Kara, or Zara) prove frustrating. It’s a neat crisis. sue knows he’s big enough, he’s joined the army perhaps and he comes bouncing back after an interregnum where Sue recounts more background. He has more aerial footage and news of Hallam.
It seemed mid-show this might earn a decent recommendation with a few clunks. It shifts however. Tightness of video, the engagement of audience and extremely well-counterpointed denouement makes this a memorable show. And did I mention the Childs can sing? It’s very triple-threat in a tiny room. Harry’s got West End form, but Alison’s high light soprano is excellent, their song and dance recapturing musical hall pranks with canes genuinely conjures that world. It’s an extremely tight show, and Wakley and Brecht too must be congratulated for pacing it so well. The poet Edward Young once wrote ‘tis only solid bodies polish well’ and it’s to be hoped with a few more finessings this will gleam into the small, real gem it is.