More than a century before cabaret mushroomed into its current state of engorgement, music hall was keeping the masses entertained with a variety format familiar to many modern audiences. In those golden days, comedy, burlesque and vaudeville happily co-existed without the need for one artform to take potshots at another. Just imagine.
A new show at the Camden People’s Theatre this weekend brings to vivid life that era as well as touching on family relationships within a show. While the BBC’s Count Arthur Strong took a sidelong look at one retired vaudevillian, Sid And Valerie (playing this weekend at the Camden People’s Theatre) portrays two performers very much hanging in there. Sid (Sue MacClaine) is an old school variety performer who, with his resentful daughter (Valerie, played by Emma Kilbey), channels the likes of Tommy Cooper, Tadeusz Kantor, Shirley Bassey and Judy Garland while entertaining the audience with an assortment of low tech/high fun frolics. Can this volatile mix of family dynamics and variety survive exposure to the 21st century? We spoke to to creators Maclaine and Kilbey about Sid and Valerie.
Sid Lester grew from Sue MacLaine’s interest in performing as a man within a cabaret style setting. Having worked as a stand-up in the early Nineties, she wanted to know how different the “permissions” would be if she were being a funny man rather than woman.
The character of Sid was inspired by a variety of sources, but was most influenced by her love of music hall variety acts; in particular, those who had ‘grown up’ onstage, learnt their own craft by watching, rehearsing and occasionally nicking other acts’ material. Becoming an all-round entertainer was often a way out of poverty and there is an admiration and respect for the grafting it takes to perfect an act.
Comedians such as Norman Wisdom had a particular fascination and influence. Sue saw him being interviewed in his seventies, unable to stop telling jokes and doing pratfalls. There was an inability to be ‘himself’, which was in equal measure moving and annoying. The determination to continue to perform, come what may, is so powerful and can be seen in all those who have endured, such as Bruce Forsyth, where there’s a similar sense that if he stopped performing then his life would be over, so better keep going.
The other influence was an article about the closure of an evening class that taught widowers how to cook. Those attending the class were devastated which triggered ideas about “frailty” and how that changes for men as they age.
Sid Lester arrived pretty much fully formed and began life as a solo show written by Sue MacLaine with Valerie, his daughter, a character on the page. However she started to demand to be let out and the comedy partnership with Emma Kilbey began.
So we have Sid Lester, who wants one last shot at stardom, and his 40-something daughter, Valerie, bound together by the death of Florrie (beloved wife, mother and ex dance partner for Sid in the old days) trying to perform this show. They throw everything at it: tap dancing, patter and gags, singing, impersonations, balloon modelling, acro-balance, bird whistling, and sometimes even Ronnie Barker the dog, but of course their co-dependent relationship keeps getting in the way. Valerie loathes Sid in only the way a daughter who has been overlooked and undermined can. Sid is in grief for his dear Florrie and wants Valerie to replace her which of course she cannot. Sid and Valerie, like all successful double acts, are bound to each other by a “can’t live with, can’t live without” dynamic.
Even though Valerie came later to the party in terms of the evolution of the show, it is as if she has always been there and will never go away. Sue MacLaine and Emma Kilbey have extensive careers as performers and solo artists which they bring to this unique collaboration. They also have a shared sensibility regarding the work having both been influenced by evenings in front of the telly watching Summertime Specials, Royal Variety Shows – family entertainment with a sort of homespun glitz and end-of-the-pier sensibility.
Sid and Valerie can perform as a double act but are also excellent hosts having recently created the “Sid Lester Christmas Special” with an ensemble company of 18 including a live band (piano and drums), tap dancers, an aerial act, a song and dance mistress, a failing magician and an eight-piece brass band.
Sid And Valerie will be at the Camden People’s Theatre on Saturday 15 and Sunday 16 March. More information on the show can be found here.