A funny thing happens a quarter of the way into Britain’s Best Recruiting Sergeant by Joy Wilkinson. The stage, made up to look like male impersonator music hall performer Vesta Tilley’s (Emily Wachter) auditoria, is split into two, with her father comedy actor Harry Ball (Tom Espiner), his back to the audience, performing to an unseen dark stadium as his daughter, still then only young, apes his impression of Henry VIII impressively to the real live considerably younger (mostly) audience in the Unicorn’s Weston Studio.
The duality theme in this piece commemorating the 150th anniversary of Vesta Tilley’s birth and her role as a considered celebrity using her status on the stage to encourage many young men to go to war and lose their lives in WW1, is continued throughout the 70 minute production and introduces many modern themes- the role of celebritism in today’s culture and the moral obligations that come with it, gender issues and even transgenderism, personal guilt and responsibility and, pertinently now, just as the BBC launches their Get Creative Scheme, the role of art in our lives (here as propaganda)- as well giving us a WW1 from a different perspective for ages eight and over – the production will excite and inform adults as much as it will kids.
The story begins with Vesta’s early years and travels backwards and forwards in time with interjections from an older Tilley (Mia Soteriou) as she looks on from her ‘retirement’ home in Monte Carlo. Her innocence and youthfulness, nicely captured in the younger by Emily Wachter, is entirely preserved, everything for her, just like the dressing up, is a game, until a tragedy, brought about it could be said, by her own ego, stops the games, the pretence. When Vesta is asked to actually- quite literally- be the son for the mother whose child (played by Caleb Frederick) she enticed to war and to his death- her response is metaphorical- and gives us a reflection on the mistakes we make in the art world- how liberally and easily we mistake it for real life. Vesta can no more be the man in real life and give back what she helped take away than she could be a woman in a munitions factory and sometime in the production, though not much, is spent on her guilty conscience concerning all those young men she enticed to war.
But the theme is brought forward enough. No one can leave the studio without reflecting on the parallels between art and its conflict/ contrast with real life and the responsibility art has in providing an amoral voice rather than one that sits on one side of the fence. The visual elements of the production capture this well- stage lights quickly become bomb flashes, Union Jacks- works of art in their own right- turn into guns, ‘tour’ of course has its double meaning and we are all familiar with the ideas around the theatricalities of war. And we are accompanied, periodically, with the presence of Vesta’s doll house, given to her as a present when she was a little girl- and its reinstatement at the play’s end, is telling of the ambiguously seen but overtly propagandist game like role art played in WW1. If Britain were under attack now, would we witness such efforts today one wonders? We are not quite so innocent.
Direction from Lee Lyford is pitch perfect and the cast, a quartet from the ensemble of Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle, are wonderfully in tune with each other, making them a pleasure to watch.
One sometimes wishes for a hotter, sweatier dusty music hall and the feel of London but perhaps the hyper real sense of the piece complements that of war- any war.
Energetic, whacky and informative, the piece cleverly introduces children to the bigger and more complicated issues surrounding war and embeds it not as something to be seen in a historical context but brings it up close, present and now.
Britain’s Best Recruiting Sergeant continues until 15th March at Unicorn Theatre