Who better to the fascinating appeal of London music halls than the astounding Victorian magicians Morgan & West?
Last year saw the re-opening of both Wilton’s Music Hall and Hoxton Hall after extensive reconstruction work. The London music hall era’s legacy can be seen on any modern cabaret stage and back in their day, they were the realm of bawdy songs and brazen banter as well as all manner of variety acts.
Next week, Victorian magicians Morgan & West travel to the present day to bring us their Parlour Tricks at Wilton’s Music Hall. We asked them to explain the ongoing appeal of music halls.
“Music hall” was the TV of its day – entertainment for the masses. Born of a boom in the popularity of comedy songs, tavern rooms and pub stages grew into great arched halls, big enough for tables full of food and drink, punters full booze and bluster and songs full of innuendo and satire. As the rooms grew the repertoire of the performers had to as well. Comedy songs were joined by comedians, sketch acts, jugglers, mimes, ventriloquists, wrestlers, drag acts, acrobats and, of course, magicians. Walk into the right music hall at the right time in Victorian London and you might just see Harry Houdini escaping from a trunk beset with chains.
So what happened?
Entertainment moved on. The age of radio began and people no longer had to leave the house to hear music. Cheaper gramophones meant the audience could own their own music and the popularity of jazz and swing led to other clubs stealing the music hall audience. The final nail in the coffin was, of course, TV. Affordable television sets changed the face of entertainment forever, and the music halls were the first to be shut out in the cold.
More than fifty years after many of the old music halls closed their doors for the final time, there is some light in the darkness. Two of London’s music halls are not only still around, but their popularity is booming. Stepping inside Wilton’s Music Hall or Hoxton Hall is, at least from an architectural point of view, like stepping back in time. Both venues have undergone extensive refurbishment, but the brick walls and wood panels still drip with character, and when you sit in the stalls during a comedy show or music gig you can feel the incredible history around you, and can practically hear the crowd singing along with “Champagne Charlie” or “Glorious Beer”.
Where do we fit in to all this? A lot of music hall’s performances do not stand the test of time – the jokes and songs long forgotten, the performers themselves footnotes in comedy’s vast history. The variety acts, on the other hand, are still going strong – from the vast theatre tours of Derren Brown and Dynamo, to the multi-million dollar professional wrestling industry, to seven seasons of Ru Paul’s Drag Race, the DNA of music hall variety is an ever present part of the entertainment industry.
In January of 2016 we are performing our show “Parlour Tricks” on the stage of Wilton’s Music Hall. Yes, it is very fitting that we play characters from the 19th century, but for us performing on a genuine music hall stage is more than that. We will be walking in the footsteps of magicians long forgotten, performing tricks that they could have been performing 100 years earlier, meaning that in a few small pockets of the theatrical landscape the music halls are still thriving, and the variety arts are still alive.
Morgan & West’s Parlour Tricks can be seen at Wilton’s Music Hall from 19-23 January (no show on 22nd). Tickets are £8-£15. More information can be found on the Wilton’s website.
Our review of their 2013 show at the Royal Albert Hall.
Morgan & West on The Magic Behind Audience Participation
Morgan & West on Double Trouble: What Is Like To Be A Duo?
Morgan & West on The Magicians’ Magicians