Pros: Excellent writing and exuberant performances in a wonderful theatre space.
Cons: The high seats along the back of the upper circle aren’t suitable for everybody, so get there on time to avoid perching.
Britain’s Best Recruiting Sergeant at the Unicorn Theatre is a show about music hall legend and male impersonator, Vesta Tilley, who had the most amazing rise to stardom. The story takes us from little Tilley’s Victorian childhood dreams of following in her father’s footsteps as a stage performer, through to her active role in recruiting soldiers, drumming up manpower for the war effort. Part of the First World War Centenary events and activities, this show is as much about the excitement and exhilaration of vaudeville as it is about sombre remembrances.
Joy Wilkinson has written an excellent script that helps chart the life of Vesta Tilley for a young audience whilst also making it engaging for adults. The staging is very well executed: Tilley, played by Emily Wachter, digs exuberantly in and out of her suitcases and chests of drawers to grab the next costume and prop that will help her be the star she was born to be. There are lovely surprises to the story and having the older Tilley on stage, narrating the story, is suspenseful and poignant.
The versatile cast of four do a spectacular job of inhabiting multiple roles and help create the feeling that there are many more actors on stage. They also play a range of musical instruments throughout. The piano accompaniment is not just for the lively musical numbers, such as Daisy, Daisy and Henry VIII I am, but is also cleverly used to for comedy and to develop the story. The winning sequence is this show happens when Tilley takes us through the making of a silent movie about her life where she, in typical generosity, acts out all the parts. Watching her jump in and out of an array of costumes is most entertaining, and her use of the tropes of the genre is very impressive.
The show is upbeat throughout, where it seemed to me it could have gone a little deeper and murkier during the more morally complex moments of Tilley’s development and her reflections on her role as an artist in the war. At one hour, it is also, alas, all too fleeting. This last point will not be problem for families who like evening shows, but also want to be home at a decent time. And the story is definitely complete and fulfilling.
The Unicorn Theatre is clearly a space people are bowled over by on a first encounter; I overheard plenty of audience members saying as much. The four-floor building is very spacious, light and contains some very colourful touches that appeal to young spectators. The semi-circular auditorium is fresh and inviting too. I’m not sure how some people would fare with the seats up at the back of the circle, where you’re perched up high, but it does mean you get a very clear view of the stage.
Overall, there are so many reasons why Britain’s Best Recruiting Sergeant is a great night out for the entire family. The show entertains and satisfies from the start to finish, and children will enjoy watching the very determined little Tilley live out her superstar dream.
Author: Joy Wilkinson
Director: Lee Lyford
Box Office: 020 7645 0560
Booking Link: https://www.unicorntheatre.com/whatson/70/britain-s-best-recruiting-sergeant
Booking Until: 15 March 2015