Tag Archives: Tony Lidington

More on Dan Leno’s ‘Queen of My Heart’

21 Apr

stanley_cock_theatre_postcard_dan_leno1

Last year I wrote a post about Dan Leno’s act ‘Queen of My Heart’, in which he played a bashed wife in a parody of romantic song. Really, the post was about the whole genre of songs concerning domestic violence and masculine anger towards women which I had encountered in acts performed on the 1880-90s Australian variety stage.

The post, perhaps provocatively entitled ‘Clownish Misogyny’, attracted a number of comments by Leno aficionados. They objected to his act being singled out in this way. It was wrong, they said, to make Leno the poster-boy for music-hall songs about misogyny. Most of his repertoire was about men making fun of themselves, and when he played women it was with a pathos and a knowingness underlying the comic shtick which gave them an emotional complexity of their own.

I was amazed, given this exchange, to find Tony Lidington performing ‘Queen of My Heart’ in his performance, Dan Leno: The King’s Jester (reviewed in my last post). Having seen it, I can see that in many ways those commenting on the post were right. That song, at least, is more a painfully matter-of-fact commentary on the reality lived by battered women than a humorous attack upon them. And yes, it portrays the ‘heroine’ getting ready to give back as good as she got later in the night.

The joke, then, is on romantic sentimentality far more than the woman herself in the song. But still, there is something highly uncomfortable about it from this retrospective vantage. The notion that a woman being bashed about might be presented in comic mode in any sense is uncomfortable, however much of a pathetic undercurrent the performance possessed.

As Lidington presents it in Dan Leno, songs about the underside of lower working-class married life were a feature of Leno’s early routines in the London halls, as indeed they were of others’ routines at the time. Leno was steered away from this subject matter by the managers of the halls once he went big towards the end of the 1880s, however, when the business was aiming aggressively at a wider-than-working-class clientele.

‘Queen of My Heart’ may not have been representative of Leno’s entire oeuvre, then, but it was characteristic of a certain genre among his performances early in his music-hall career. The recordings he later made did not cover this period of his performing life,  and so do not capture the tenor of those early songs.

Note: The above image is a picture of Leno as a panto dame by Stanley Cock, and was sourced from the About Postcards blog.

Dan Leno, The King’s Jester: a review

20 Apr

He may have died in 1904 in a mental asylum at 43, but the Victorian music-hall comedian and pantomime dame, Dan Leno, lives on in an extraordinary travelling production about his life. It has often been lamented that no film of Leno’s acts were made, so that a sense of what allegedly made him ‘the funniest man on earth’ can only now be imagined from written reports and a few crackling recordings. In Tony Lidington’s extraordinary performance as Leno in Dan Leno: The King’s Jester, however, one finds the next-closest thing.

dan_leno

Although he was the most highly-paid musical-hall performer of his generation, achieving celebrity at the same time that the London halls themselves reached the peak of their acclaim, Leno was a vulnerable and ultimately broken-down man. He came to success only after grinding years as a child performer and competitive clog-dancer on the gritty Victorian travelling-show circuit, with a drunken and probably violent father (and later, stepfather) blighting his early life. Leno was also a committed unionist who atttempted to take on the fat cats of the entertainment industry by setting up rival music halls of his own. They crushed the endeavour as ruthlessly as they exploited their performers in the years just before Leno’s breakdown.

No doubt in part because of these things, there was always something troubled and painful about Leno’s acts, infusing even the brightest of his comic routines. This observation was often made by those who attended his shows, and contributed to the compelling nature of his persona on stage. 

leno22

This mix of melancholia and hilarity is also what makes Lidington’s performance so arresting. During Dan Leno, he performs a goodly number of the man’s most famous routines (‘Queen of My Heart’, ‘The Shopwalker’, a set-piece from one of his dame performances, and ‘The Hard-Boiled Egg and the Wasp’ among them). In each case, the acts are rendered as emotionally fraught, simultaneously funny and sad. They are also interspersed with a narrative about Leno’s life in a beautiful, eloquent, and tautly structured script which Lidington wrote himself on the basis of careful research.

Dan Leno: The King’s Jester is a collaboration between the Georgian Theatre Royal (Richmond) and Lidington’s own company, Promenade Productions. It isn’t at all a slick show – it’s built to be shown in anything from large halls to smallish rooms, with a basic-looking though cleverly-designed pack-away set. I saw it during a theatre-history conference at the University of Exeter last week; it is now in North Yorkshire and will continue touring until late May (see the tour schedule here).

Still, slick would be all wrong for this glimpse into Leno’s difficult and arguably glorious life. And given his origins as an itinerant performer, its own character as a travelling show is certainly apt. If you’re interested in the music hall or the history of stand-up comedy, and if you can see Dan Leno before it ends in late May, I really think you must.

(NB the above image comes from this web-page about Leno, and also appears in the V&A Museum’s theatre collections. Now I wonder where Charlie Chaplin got his sartorial sense from?)