Brighton Fringe 2018
Directed by Joyce Fisher, Jenner d stars in his one-man show, which after a run at Eastbourne and at the Unitarian, travels to Malt Cross Music Hall & Nottingham Arts Theatre from 27-28 July, and Hailsham’s Pavilion Theatre, Saturday September 15th.
So you’ve heard of Billy Merson? Well no, but he was one of the greatest vaudevillians and unlike many succeeded in film, radio and even at the end of his life on TV in 1946.
Directed by Joyce Fisher, Miles Jenner stars in his one-person touring show If I Catch Alphonso, Tonight! which is the title of Merson’s most famous song, captured with other examples of him performing on film. After a run at Eastbourne it now continues to Nottingham and Hailsham. Roger Roser accompanies and occasionally acts from the piano.
Jenner’s previous credits include a touring Noel and Gertie with Meg Depla-Lake (2009-12) seen at the Marlborough and elsewhere; and a notable Richard III at Lewes Little Theatre in 2014.
The Unitarian’s a cavernous acoustic needing spit-sharp diction, which happily it receives though the piano occludes a few narrative points whilst attempting to keep up a kind of background rhythm. The Overture comprising several hits is Roser’s and strikes the right up-beat to proceedings on the Unitarian’s upright; with punchy clarity too. Jenner meanwhile racks off a complete wardrobe for the songs.
The set’s a backdrop triptych, overture and twenty numbers printed readably down the centre. Of each flap’s massive colour poster, Oxford Theatre’s young woman sports a mortar-board, scene of Merson’s breakthrough; the other’s London’s Theatre Royal.
Up-stage left and right chairs for reflective moments. It’s downstage right we encounter that massive clothes rail: a travelling basket labelled Alphonso, where Jenner tosses discarded clothes after each song.
It’s the opposite of The Entertainer and a broken third-rater’s last act. Here the Nottingham-born (on March 29th 1881, originally William Henry Thompson) Merson was king, an undisputed one from 1901 through the late Thirties and featured on that TV Veterans of Vaudeville, in 1946. So why have we not heard of him?
Name a few other vaudevillians. Well George Robey… there aren’t many. Merson should be remembered because so much of him survives: films, his songs, which people find they remember but not who sang them. And the fact that Al Jolson stole one and Merson understandably sued. More on that soon. Songs and Merson’s own film-clips are readily available online and it’s clear Jenner’s studied, assimilated and modulated these performances to suit his own timbre and delivery.
Jenner, a light tenor with a remarkable range, renders such songs as ‘Senora’ where:
If your father, Spaghetti, won’t give his consent
And says that you can’t marry me,
I will start a vendetta and stick my stilleta
In a nice little place he will never forgeta.
gives you a flavour of Merson’s pattering wit.
Starting out with a friend Bernard Whiteman in a tumbling acrobatic routine Snakella & Travella they were advised to adopt American style names, had success from 1904-08 till Merson struck out on his own, and dispensed with his trademark bald wig. Married with a daughter who turned playwright and a son who wrote songs, Merson saw spectacular success through the Oxford Theatre, his own turf at Nottingham and London.
Jenner’s engaging litany is linear, with very little backstory. Merson’s songs which come thick, thin (just a verse or two for some) and certainly fast alternate with the paradigm of early struggles, breakthrough and in Merson’s case various attempts to break free of contracts. It’s not that he didn’t try to act honourably, but was mired in sub-clauses and often ended in court. Every time he lost, bar one moment in 1929. We’ll come to that, after Merson’s brush with the war. Dismissed by a laughing sergeant for being bow-legged and short (so’s Jenner – short only) Merson threw himself into war work and a decided sympathy for the now-beleaguered Lord Kitchener, whose uniform he marches off with and on again with the interval.
There’s some superb songs. ‘They Can’t Find Kelly’ is a sharp-witted one:
Cook and Peary found the Pole, if their reports are true
Another man has also found what radium can do
To fly around up in the air they’ve also formed a plan
But they can’t find Kelly from the Isle of Man.
and of course the song giving the show its name. The sigh of the diminutive Merson threatening a toreador is incongruous enough and you can locate him on film looking just like that. You can hear Merson online singing this:
List to me while I tell you
Of the Spaniard that blighted my life
List to me while I tell you
Of the man who stole my future wife…
… He shall die! He shall die! Oh!
I’ll raise a bunion on his Spanish onion
If I catch him bending tonight!
There’s also an excellent trailer with Jenner quoting some songs.
The only problem with this show is Jenner’s reluctance to leave much out; where else will you ever hear it? Miraculously it doesn’t pall – the second half’s stronger too, commands pathos and calls far more on Jenner’s character-acting skills. They’ve been in evidence but the moment there’s a real drama in the story the production moves into top gear. We need a bit more of this contrast. And there’s Al Jolson…
The climactic moment when Jenner impersonates several learned counsels and judges at two court hearings marks the triumph of good acting over a potentially samey story. Jenner manages to invest pathos – the deaths of two people in particular – and Merson’s apparent decline. But then come the films. This simply isn’t the tale of a ‘cinema killed the vaudeville star’ moment: the film industry loved Merson and he revelled at being at home in the newish medium, as he did on radio and TV. By his death his kind of song hadn’t exactly gone out of date.
Jenner draws Merson’s travails and World War Two (where he enjoyed working with ENSA) to a diminuendo with an infinitely affecting ‘I’m Going Away’.
He died at 66 six months after that TV appearance on June 25th 1947. That’s hardly a spoiler!
This is a unique show about Billy Merson. Like all tributes it depends on the artist’s empathy as well as suitability – and the quality of the original artist’s material. Jenner’s singing, his diction (essential here) panache and timing are exemplary. His stamina is frankly astonishing. For some it would have been good to have him miked up, particularly given the piano’s unfair advantage in this acoustic. The only time I encountered a challenge was when the name ‘Michael Hordern’ – an emerging teen star in Merson’s daughter’s 1938 play – was almost lost.
I wonder if it wouldn’t be a good idea to prepare the first half’s costumes, then remove and replace with the second half? It leaves the stage clearer and the second seat more inviting.
I’ve commented about length. The show’s around two hours with a twenty-minute interval. It’s not too long and miraculously doesn’t flag, as Jenner certainly doesn’t. I’m glad to have heard all the songs though wonder if it might be trimmed – or at least a few more of the less witty songs reduced to a single verse. Jenner’s moved out of the comfort zone of his Coward years which suit him particularly, or straight acting. And there’s always friends, like the actress referring to her stole cheerfully as ‘my piece of vermin’.
He doesn’t pretend to a Nottingham accent since Merson shed it as a performer and possibly raconteur. It’s a remarkable feat. Jenner doesn’t impersonate Merson so much as inhabit him. His gestures evoke Merson, his vocal attack catches the original remarkably; his timbre though is rightly his own.
Given the quality of the trailer (more than simply professional standard, whoever made it) I wonder if Jenner shouldn’t follow his idol into film – just a small one with this material, edited; it’d make a permanent case for Billy Merson: one he’d not lose.