The Shaw Festival's production of Me and My Girl elicited the biggest standing ovation that I have witnessed over many years. A collective appreciation of a ludicrous story with silly sight and sound gags throughout, and everyone loved
it, especially the tap-dancing with its rhythmic beat that propels one along with the madcap mayhem on stage.
Afterwards, invited to the Members' Terrace to chat about the play, "Fun-Joyful-Playful" were the first audience one-word reactions. One woman said that given the current state of the world, she came to be entertained, and that's what was offered along with the "Lambeth Walk" which I watched school children try to imitate on their way back to their bus.
Tim Carroll, the new Artistic Director summarizes the play as "Pygmalion meets Grease," and he was on hand to tell us that
Hitler was once buffooned in a propaganda film that employed the Lambeth Walk, a song takes its name from a local street once notable for its market and working class culture in London. The tune gave its name to a Cockney dance first made popular in 1937 by Lupino Lane. The story line of Me and My Girl concerns a Cockney barrow boy, Bill Snibson, (Michael Therriault) who inherits an earldom but almost loses his Lambeth girlfriend, Sally Smith (Kristi Frank) until both emerge like butterflies towards the end.
Therriault charges into the opening act and never slows down, offering us Charlie Chaplin-like slapstick, and in one scene, dressed in the huge scarlet cape and coronet as he prepares for his debut in the House of Lords, he imitates a balloon losing its air which was hilarious. Élodie Gillett as Lady Jacqueline Carstone and Kyle Blair as the Honourable Gerald Bolingbroke also deserve mention for their spot-on performances. The family solicitor, Parchester, (Jay Turvey) provides a humorous take on legal terminology, confusing it with bizarre dance steps and adds wonderfully to the merriment.
Carroll deploys Shaw's skilled ensemble, utilizing 23 characters in 116 different looks outfitted in brilliant costumes designed by Sue LePage. Therriault and Frank carry the play with their addictive energy prancing across Drew Facey's colourful sets with Paul Sportelli and his orchestra leading the way. John Lott's sound is crystal clear as an older audience member remarked and Parker Esse's choreography is remarkable particularly when swarms of actors occupy the stage. Kevin Lamotte's lighting is perfect, and the living props are great fun to watch.
Director Ashlie Corcoran gets full marks for translating this West End hit from the 1930s (rewritten and modernized by Stephen Fry) into a great way to escape from the world.
The plot in current terms has Snibson (Michael Therriault) win the lottery, being named Earl of Hareford. He inherits a country estate filled with pompous members of the upper class, and the fun begins when Maria, Duchess of Dene (Sharry Flett) tries to transform him and get him to renounce his girl. Then, it's Beverley Hillbilly time as love conquers all.
Me and My Girl plays in the Festival Theatre until October 15 in beautiful Niagara-on-the-Lake.
www.ShawFest.com or 905-468-2172.
Behind the Scenes - Me and My Girl
2017 Season Preview with Tim Carroll
Élodie Gillett and Kyle Blair with Travis Seetoo, David Ball and Jonah McIntosh Photo by David Cooper
Kristi Frank as Sally Smith and Michael Therriault as Bill Snibson in Me and My Girl. Photo by David Cooper
P: We've known each other for a long time, but this is our first-ever collaboration! I'm curious how
your approach to this musical compares to other pieces you've directed.
A: Every piece I direct feels so different from the ones before it - but my starting process is similar
each time. I investigate the dramaturgical structure and try to understand what the writer was trying
to achieve. Then, I think about the current audience, and start collaborating with the team. What
about you - how do you approach doing a classic musical for a modern audience?
P: My prep is similar to yours. For me, an interesting thing about this musical is that I find it quite
accessible to modern ears. And as much as we try to get the world of the piece right historically, we
can't help but bring a contemporary perspective to the piece, as we're alive and working in 2017.
A: Exactly! Drew [set designer] and I knew that we wanted to place Hareford Hall in the 1930s,
but we also didn't want to make the set entirely realistic. I love theatre that invites an audience's
participation and imagination. Similarly, Sue [costume designer] and I explored period costumes
with contemporary elements woven throughout, and Parker [choreographer] has peppered
anachronistic moves throughout his incredibly well-researched visual storytelling. That makes me
wonder, how important is period "authenticity" to you?
P: I'm interested in achieving an authentic 1930s sound - I've tried to do this in my orchestral adaptation, and how I've musically directed the actors - but I think Noel Gay was interested in writing music that stands the test of time, so I'm actually more interested in what makes the piece timeless and universal. I also find the script has a musicality that meshes beautifully with the score.
A: Yes! For me, celebrating the joy and playfulness at the centre of this piece keeps it authentic to its original spirit. Speaking of playfulness, tell me more about the piece's musical style.
P: The music is rooted in a 32-bar song form, and is squeezing it for all it is worth! There is an inevitability to the melodies and song structure, but that will play with the listener's sense of expectation, which I think will delight our audience.
A: I agree completely: it is a show filled with earworms! The music is fun, cheeky and sly. What is interesting to me is how the piece evolved over its various iterations.
P: Yes. The score contains many Noel Gay songs added after the original 1937 production: "Leaning on a Lamp Post" is the most notable example, but though its lyrics are slightly incorrect for the story, the gesture of this iconic musical number is entirely correct. All of these songs are so well-constructed that they invite us into the emotions of the characters and take us on a journey with them.
A: Yes - for me, the journey isn't about a "lucky" couple winning the lotto and becoming part of the
one percent. Instead, it explores the transformative power that steadfast and committed love has
over the entire group - no matter what class, age, gender or background. "Love Makes the World Go
Round" by opening our hearts, allowing us to grow, learn and change.
"Doing the Lambeth Walk" by Christopher Newton
Most British plays, even Shakespeare's, have the British class structure at their heart. The odd thing about the British class system, as opposed to the European model, was that it had a built-in flexibility. The successful worker could move into the lower-middle class and from there rise into the upper-middle class and, after a few generations, into the highest ranks of the ruling class. And it really was a ruling class. A peer had an automatic seat in the House of Lords. He didn't have to be elected in order to vote on government business: the privilege came with his title.
For the aristocrat there was no need to work for a living. Money came from land and investment and this relative leisure meant that behaviour could be codified. Rules determined behaviour of all kinds: how one dressed, what one ate, and, most particularly, manners. "Ladies of fashion" wrote books to help the uninitiated ape their betters. And the rules were enforced. Officers in India found it imperative to dress for dinner despite the stifling temperatures. In the 1930s, radio announcers at the BBC were instructed to wear evening dress to read the news. Such rules reinforced a solid, secure structure with the aristocracy at the top and an enormous, aspiring middle class immediately below. The Duke of Wellington in the early nineteenth century voted against every bill promoting the railways because he believed - correctly - that travel would broaden the curiosity of the lower classes and thus imperil the prevailing structure.
It could be argued that the structure enabled society to work relatively efficiently until the end of World War 1. Then everything changed. Britain turned out to be inhospitable to the heroes of the trenches, and the twenty years between the wars were a time of disruption. Old values, old social
structures were questioned and the complex framework began to crumble beneath the surface.
These patterns were reflected in popular culture - including musical comedies of the period. It was here that the political ascendance of the United States was mirrored on the stage. The Americans brought to Britain a supposedly classless society and the jazz age. Syncopated rhythms were the vogue. Porter, Berlin, Gershwin all delighted the youthful. But in Britain an old tradition persisted that stemmed from Gilbert and Sullivan: it was affected by ragtime and jazz but never abandoned its essentially lyric pulse. This was most notable in the operettas of Ivor Novello: huge, luscious pieces with titles like Glamorous Night and plots about abandoned princesses and adventures in a world far from reality. Noel Coward, who was himself fascinated by Viennese operetta, came much closer to the real world in his tough contributions to popular revues. And while his great plays certainly didn't suffer fools or foolishness gladly, they frequently reflected and upheld the old rickety structures of society. Novello and Coward were the great names, but there were others led by Vivian Ellis who contributed many a jolly entertainment. Ellis's most popular work was the role-reversal piece Mr. Cinders (produced here in 1996), lightly influenced by jazz. Other composers in this vein included Billy Mayerl (remembered today mainly for his piano pieces) and Noel Gay.
Me and My Girl opened in 1937 as the Christmas show at the Victoria Palace. It starred a London favourite, Lupino Lane, a singer-comedian who specialized in acrobatic tricks. Indeed he was renowned for having dived through the 74 stage traps in six minutes in a 1921 production of Aladdin at the London Hippodrome. But it was the role of Bill Snibson, the cockney from Lambeth who inherits an earldom, that made him famous. He had actually invented the role in a previous musical - Twenty to One (music by Billy Mayerl). This was the case of a character in search of a successful vehicle which he ultimately found in Me and My Girl.
By the end of its third week, the musical was faltering. But luckily the BBC broadcast a half-hour excerpt which included "The Lambeth Walk". The result was immediate attention in a very particular manner. Like many post-war periods, the years following World War I were characterized by an almost hysterical mania for pleasure of all kinds, but particularly for dancing. The Charleston, the Black Bottom, and many specialty dances became the rage. Hundreds of clubs opened up in London where late night adventurers could find a jazz band, overpriced drinks, and a tiny dance floor.
Lambeth was a cockney area of London south of the river. Society would have known it for Lambeth Palace, the home of the Archbishop of Canterbury, but the rest of the area was working-class with a reputation for retaining a flavour of Victorian London. It kept up the tradition of the Pearly King and Queen who sported glittering costumes covered with bright buttons. There were dance halls and music halls in Lambeth, the likes of which had all but disappeared from north of the river. In the popular imagination it was an area of old-fashioned cockney cheerfulness.
"The Lambeth Walk" became a sensation. A dance, invented for the song, included a jaunty strut, a typical "thumbs up" sign, and a happy "oi" in the cockney Jewish tradition. Indeed it lent itself to patronization: the ruling class could, like Marie Antoinette, play at being workers or peasants and go home happily drunk after a night at the Trocadero. Visitors from outside London heard the BBC broadcast. and flocked to the Victoria Palace where they cheered the Lambeth Walk and tried to reproduce it round the piano in their own homes. The Lambeth Walk inspired other dances too, the most famous of which was probably "Knees up Mother Brown". The stamp of respectability for the Lambeth Walk came when the Duke of Kent, George V's youngest son, and Princess Marina, despite the disapproval of the old courtiers, joined the crowds at The Savoy and strutted their way around the dance floor.
Me and My Girl made Lupino Lane, who was the producer as well as the star, a very rich man. Unfortunately, like so many of these musicals from the '20s and '30s, it had a very slight book. It was improved by Stephen Fry in the 1980s. Bill is still our proud egalitarian hero who encounters a collection of ridiculous aristocrats led by a Duchess who at first sight appears to be a difficult battleaxe. Some references are new: a sly mention, for instance, is made of a resident of Wimpole Street who can perform wonders transforming the underprivileged into members of the upper class. His name would, of course, be Higgins. And the musical numbers have been augmented with other songs by Noel Gay who, it must be remembered, was once immensely popular. No one who grew up during the war could forget "Let the People Sing" or "Run Rabbit Run".
It took thirty years and another World War for these old traditions about the ruling class to fade away and be replaced by musicals like Fings Ain't Wot They Used T'Be, in which the cockneys would be respected for what they are rather than what they might be. Though class ridicule, class envy, and class disparagement haven't disappeared in Britain, the aristocracy have certainly lost their power and are no longer the figures of either fun or fear that they once were. They no longer set the social rules, and radio announcers at the BBC no longer change into evening dress to read the news.
Christopher Newton served as Artistic Director of the Shaw Festival for 23 seasons, from 1980 to 2002. He has directed 60 productions here, including Mr Cinders, and appeared in 17 more.