Lemonsqueeze Productions returns to Brighton Fringe with A Couple of Swells. A celebration of early 1900's music hall stars Vesta Tilley and Hetty King, who were two of a select few who made the art of drag kings a reality. Throughout the Great War, they kept the spirits of the troops alive through times of hardship and more by performing for them, writing letters and in Tilley's case, sending things like her old costumes, so the men could put on their own shows when not fighting. They may have had different lifestyles, upbringings and attitudes towards life and morals, but they had the common factor of the love of theatre that linked them together as two of the most forward-thinking artists of their generation.
A fantastic celebration of music hall.
Sarah Archer (Vesta Tilley) and Emma Hopkins (Hetty King) take on these two challenging roles and explore the idea of them performing together for a charity concert sharing top billing (not that they are overly keen on the idea of course!). What emerges is a special night that brings the joy and the essence of the music hall era, using the strong combination of specially choreographed dances with the aid of local dance school MyCharleston, humorous yet frank conversations and classic songs such as Burlington Bertie and Following in Father's Footsteps.
There is a moment in the show when both ladies do a section to help a modern audience understand some of the characters they portray via a reworked version of ZZ Top's Sharp Dressed Man in the style of Tilley and King. This explains why there is a small Addidas bag on the coat rack at the back of the stage which looks out of place to begin with, but the change from classic to modern style songs is so subtle that if you blink, you miss it. Whilst this works well, it runs the risk of spoiling the illusion for those who are more into realistic portrayals of famous characters. However, for a modern, younger audience, this enables them to understand the world of music hall and how it parodied life at the time in an accessible and sophisticated way.
Archer plays Tilley with such decorum and class that not only showcases the privileged lifestyle she had, but by claiming she was one of the originals that started the trend of dressing as a man alongside Marie Lloyd and Nelly Power. Whilst this is true, Archer plays to the crowd, using this as an anchor to creatively 'shade' the newcomer of King to keep her in her place through comedy. Hopkins on the other hand fights back well by channelling King's comedic feistiness, but takes a more serious route when personally attacked by Tilley. She calls out how Tilley encouraged young men to sign up for their own death in battle. Archer and Hopkins cleverly use the rivalry to their advantage though, as they create magic in their set, engaging with the audience and clearly enjoying the experience.
Using both different styles of comedy of Tilley and King not only gives a fantastic celebration of music hall, but an interesting exploration of life itself using entertainment as a platform.