In 1751, King George II signed “An Act for the better preventing Thefts and Roberries, and for regulating Places of publick Entertainment, and punishing Persons keeping disorderly Houses” that banned brothels and the kind of bawdy entertainment so enjoyed by the London populace. Neither brothels nor such “publick” entertainment was deterred. Flashing forward a couple of centuries, we have the British Players who, for the past 50 years, have been keeping the bawdy spirit of the music hall alive and well in the Washington area.
They were at the Freer ’s Meyer Auditorium on Saturday celebrating the Sackler Gallery’s “An American in London: Whistler and the Thames” exhibit with a 19th-century replica vaudeville show. “Entertaining Whistler’s London” was full of bad jokes, genuinely funny acts and naughty songs with titles such as “I’ve Got a Little Dickie” and “You’ve Got the Right Key But the Wrong Keyhole,” all sung archly with a wink and a nod. Malcolm Edwards emceed the goings-on, directing traffic as the company of 17 — voluptuous babes, many in skin-tight gowns, and portly gentlemen in silly hats and suspenders — paraded their acts.
A couple of these were truly funny: the five women in white who, musing about following their true athletic or domestic passions, managed to avoid beheading or goring one another as they swung tennis rackets and garden tools with abandon in the song “If I Were Not Upon the Stage”; and the five sturdy “Pheasant Plucker” assistants who explained their roles in the process with graphic patter-song glee while avoiding tongue-twisting traps.
The show went off with enormous good humor and energy, suggesting that the dark and somewhat spooky London that Whistler dwelt on must have had its lighthearted music-hall moments.
Reinthaler is a freelance writer.