British music hall show onstage in Kensington


The cast of British Players performing in Old Time Music Hall. (JA Simmons)
June 7

It’s as British as cricket, the BBC and sticky toffee pudding. It’s music hall: the variety-act entertainment that was hugely popular in the sceptered isle in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Similar to American vaudeville in format and fate (both fell victim to the ascent of movies and television), music hall left its own imprint on Anglophone culture. Playwright Samuel Beckett was famously influenced by music-hall comedy, for instance.

The institution will bask in the limelight again starting June 13, when the British Players premiere their latest offering, “The 50th Anniversary Old Time Music Hall,” in Kensington, Md. Comic musical numbers will abound, says the show’s co-director, Albert Coia, who will himself perform the ditties “The Night I Appeared as Macbeth” and “The Night That She Cried in My Beer.”

“Most of these numbers you wouldn’t hear anywhere else,” says the Glasgow-born Coia, who shares directing duties with Malcolm Edwards. Coia says the production will not include acrobats, jugglers or magicians — novelty acts that might have graced a lineup in music hall’s heyday — but will showcase, among other highlights, a harmonizing octet, a cancan line and a wisecracking turn by an emcee known as “Mr. Chairman” (a traditional music-hall figure, played here by Edwards).

Marking the centenary of the outbreak of World War I, the production will feature “Over There,” “There’s A Long, Long Trail” and other songs written during that conflict.

As the title “The 50th Anniversary Old Time Music Hall” suggests, the British Players, a community theater group, are observing their own milestone year. In 1964, when the troupe originated as the British Embassy Players and performed at the embassy (it now stages pieces at Kensington Town Hall), the D.C. area’s cultural scene seemed relatively sparse, recalls Susan Frampton, who was a British diplomat at the time. “It was not like now, when there is a theater on every corner.”

The Players kept going “mainly because we tended to do things that nobody else did,” says Frampton, the troupe’s president. In addition to music hall (which it presents annually) and British farces and mysteries, the group regularly stages holiday pantomime, a beloved genre of British family entertainment (not to be confused with Marcel Marceau-style mime) that features a humorous spin on a fairy-tale plotline, cross-dressing performers and boisterous actor-audience interaction.

Non-British participants outnumber royal subjects in British Players events, “but there is a core of Brits,” says Frampton, noting that U.K. citizens “really come out of the woodwork for the pantomime.”

Coia says music hall is a big draw, as well. “We have a lot of people, who have done many of the shows, come out year after year,” he says. With its lighthearted spirit, cabaret-style seating and opportunity to banter with Mr. Chairman, the music hall production “is very enjoyable” for audiences, Coia says.

A connection through time

Reprising World War I songs and old-school variety, the British Players’ music-hall show looks back a century or so. “An Archaeologist’s Eye: The Parthenon Drawings of Katherine A. Schwab,” an exhibit at the Embassy of Greece, gazes back millennia. An art historian on the faculty of Fairfield University in Connecticut, Schwab invested years in drawing some of the badly damaged metope sculptures that originally graced the outer face of the Parthenon, the iconic building that was constructed on the Acropolis in Athens between 447 and 432 B.C. Creating the drawings in pastel pencil and graphite helped Schwab — and, one gathers, the scholarly world — gain a better understanding of the metopes’ original appearance and narrative thrust.

The 35 drawings remain at the embassy through Aug. 1; thereafter the exhibit will travel to the Georgia Museum of Art in Athens, Ga.; the Timken Museum of Art in San Diego; and other destinations around the country. Meanwhile, gray-scale scans of Schwab’s drawings are on permanent display in no less prestigious a location than the Acropolis Museum in Athens.

Answering questions via e-mail while on vacation in Spain, Schwab said she first became fascinated with the Mediterranean as a youngster living in Bethesda, Md., when she frequently visited the museums on the Mall with her parents. She went on to become an art historian with particular expertise in Greek and Roman art and archaeology, as well as South Asian and Asian art.

When she embarked on her drawing project in an effort to better see and comprehend the severely deteriorated Parthenon metopes (a metope is an element in a Doric frieze), she was surprised by “how much information remained on the surface of the marble panels — multiple small clues that could deepen or clarify our understanding.” While trying to reproduce a sharp diagonal line that appears in a scene featuring a giant struggling with the god Ares, for instance, she realized that the giant was “violently twisting away from Ares’ grip,” not limply collapsing, as a previous reconstruction had posited.

During her work (which did not require her to perch on scaffolding, she says, because the metopes she was drawing had been moved to a storeroom in the 1980s; visitors to the Parthenon see cement-cast versions), Schwab sometimes experienced fleeting moments of communion with the sculptures’ original creators.

“It would not surprise me if many artists recognized this subtle sense of connecting with the work of the sculptor(s) [of] long ago,” she remarks. All in all, she says, the process was “very humbling.”

The British Players present “The 50th Anniversary Old Time Music Hall.” June 13-28 at Kensington Town Hall, 3710 Mitchell St., Kensington, Md. Visit britishplayers.org.

“An Archaeologist’s Eye: The Parthenon Drawings of Katherine A. Schwab.” Through Aug. 1 at the Embassy of Greece, 2217 Massachusetts Ave. NW. Visiting hours are Monday-Friday, 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Admission is 8free. Visit www.fairfield.edu/parthenon.

Wren is a freelance writer.

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